In the end it wasn’t even close. There are now 38 Conservative councillors in Barnet with 25 for Labour. Depending on how you want to present this result the Conservatives either held the council – compared with the results last time when there was an overall majority of one – or gained the council, given that overall control had recently been lost after a defection. Either way, this is a council in London where Labour were behind by the narrowest of margins, and did not merely fail to win but slid backwards.
The obvious explanation is that Labour was punished by voters for its anti-semitism – not just by Jewish voters but also by their friends and neighbours. “Solidarity” is a word often used by the Left. Last week, we saw many people in Barnet – of different faiths and none – voting Conservative to show solidarity with the Jewish community. Turnout was higher than last time at 43.7 per cent, even though the previous time the Euro-elections had taken place on the same day. The typical turnout for council elections is around a third of the electorate. So that was another measure of the strength of feeling. In the Golders Green Ward, the Conservative candidates won by around 3,000 votes to 1,000 for their Labour opponents – last time around it was by around 2,000 to 1,000. Labour lost East Barnet and West Hendon to the Conservatives: wards with a high Jewish population.
On the other hand, Redbridge has a large Jewish community and, in that borough, Labour made gains. One difference could be Wes Streeting, the Labour MP for Ilford North, who could scarcely have done more to repudiate Jeremy Corbyn. By contrast, in Barnet the messages from the Labour Party were more mixed. One Labour councillor caused great offence by comparing Conservative councillors to Hitler. Barnet Labour were proud to have that Corbynista cheerleader Owen Jones campaigning for them. Cllr Barry Rawlings, the Labour Group leader, wrote a blog which in some ways was clear and powerful, but which also said that Corbyn’s leadership was “settled.” Emily Thornberry, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, came to launch Labour’s Manifesto in Barnet. There wasn’t a clear sense (until after the elections) that the Barnet Labour Party was repudiating its Party leadership nationally.
But while antisemitism was important, it was not the only factor. Cllr Gabriel Rozenberg, a Conservative councillor, said in a Twitter thread:
“Conservatives have much to be proud of. Two years ago we identified five target wards for this election: we increased our councillor count in 4 of them, and came within two votes of gaining a councillor in the fifth, Childs Hill. Wow!
I can take no satisfaction from knowing that antisemitism was one factor in this success. Jewish voters are rejected by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. That’s appalling. Jews are diverse and should never have to vote as a bloc to feel safe. In 2018, in Barnet, they did.
There is something else though. @BarnetLabour should consider that @BarnetTories won in 2018 because, unlike our opponents, we had a clear message which voters liked and supported.
Our message was simple: weekly bins, low council taxes, strong public services. What Barnet voters understood, and approved of, was that we are focused wholly on local concerns. We are not ideological, not pro or anti outsourcing. We look for what works and do it.
By contrast, I never worked out what Labour’s positive message was in this campaign. (Did you?) So what I’d say to Barnet Labour is this: your perpetual attacks on Capita, on our libraries strategy, on our regeneration projects, have got you nowhere with voters.
Your 30 minute free parking in town centres plan has never made sense. And when you bang on about the members’ parking permit schemes – wholly legitimate, and financially irrelevant – as if it’s a grave scandal, voters stop taking you seriously.
Debate us and disagree with us – that’s your job! But remember that voters are not interested in grandstanding. If you find realistic, constructive alternatives to our policies, you will be a much tougher opponent for us next time around.”
Labour did well in some places. The Conservatives held the High Barnet Ward, but by a much narrower margin than last time. One theory is that Momentum activists can only use the Northern Line. They would pour in activists – but did not spread themselves around to all the places they were needed. Of course, others might suspect their arrival was not an unalloyed blessing for the Labour Party.
Winning all three of the Barnet constituencies at the general election last year will have helped Conservative morale and organisational strength. The Barnet Conservatives raised a lot of money locally – rather than relying on funds from CCHQ with strings attached. Just as importantly they spent it effectively over a long period – not just in the month before polling day.
Yet the key point is there were differences between the two parties which mattered to local residents. The Conservatives local Manifesto promised to maintain weekly bin collections. Labour’s one did not. Many believe that that one issue was just as damaging to Labour’s electoral fortunes as the Party’s association with antisemitism.