Jewish Labour Firebrand Aims at Tory Upset in Former Thatcher Stronghold

In her campaign for the U.K. election, Sarah Sackman, a dynamic young lawyer who speaks Hebrew slang, has made major inroads against her rival in Britain's most Jewish constituency – without avoiding the Israel issue.

LONDON – Knocking on voters’ doors is one of the oldest traditions of British elections. All candidates for Parliament do it, including prime ministers and aspiring prime ministers in the constituencies they hope will send them to the House of Commons. There’s always an element of the surprise: Will someone be at home, how are they planning to vote, will the door be slammed in the candidate’s face?

Nowadays, of course, the canvassing on the doorstep is “data-driven,” backed up by technology used by the parties to pinpoint their potential voters, the waverers and those who are in the rival camp, so there’s often no point in spending valuable campaigning time knocking on doors. But even the best data are never complete or fully up-to-date and some uncertainty always lingers.

For Sarah Sackman, a Labour Party candidate for the Finchley and Golders Green seat, there is often another indication of the identity of the people behind the door: Roughly one in five of the homes in the constituency have a mezuzah posted on the right side of the entrance.

“When I knock on that door," she says, "I’m aware that Israel could well be an issue."

Finchley, in North London, is one of the most iconic of the 650 seats in Parliament: For decades it was the constituency represented by Conservative leader and three-term Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. For decades it was regarded as a “safe” Tory seat. Then came the centrist Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Conservatives lost Finchley for three consecutive elections – a sign of how low they had slipped in the public’s estimation.

But Finchley and Golders Green isn’t just another bellwether seat with name-recognition: According to the census, it is the most Jewish constituency in Britain, with that community accounting for some 22 percent of the voters. This election, according to the polling, it is also turning out to be one of the closest contests of the entire election with challenger Sackman and incumbent Mike Freer running neck-and-neck. And since the gap in the polls between the two main parties on the nationwide level is still extremely slim – Finchley and Golders Green could be one of the decisive races.

Sarah Sackman campaigning door-to-door. Anshel Pfeffer

Surprise on both sides

This wasn’t originally expected to be a “marginal” – a closely fought seat that might change hands. In 2010 Freer won the seat back for the Conservatives with a respectable 5,800 majority. Of Labour’s list of “target seats” needed to win to wrest back power in Westminster, Finchley was only number 89. A poll which came out a month and a half ago showing the two candidates on an equal footing was a surprise for Labour as much as it was a shock to the Tories. Resources and volunteers were poured by both sides into the constituency, which has now become a key battleground. Even Prime Minister David Cameron turned up to help boost the campaign in a seat his party thought it could easily win.

How has Labour, which generally has failed in this campaign to achieve much of a breakthrough in the affluent suburban neighborhoods like Finchley, turned things around here?

Most observers have pointed to the 30-year-old Sackman, a lawyer who began planning her campaign for the seat two years ago, after successfully representing residents fighting the closure of a local library, as the main factor in Labour’s surge. Sackman and an energetic group of volunteers have focused their campaigning on local groups, communities, schools, assisted-living facilities. Thanks to a long-term ground operation, they have succeeded in creating a situation where, according to surveys, 65 percent of residents had been contacted by Labour, nearly double that by the Conservatives.

“What we’ve done here is of course good in itself but it’s also good politics,” says Sackman. “We’ve given people a reason to listen to us. We were able to mobilize hundreds of volunteers. People were motivated because we sorted stuff out here that mattered to them.”

Tough adversary

But while the bread and butter of politics is usually the local concerns of the voters, Sackman new she would have to answer questions from many prospective constituents on Labour’s positions regarding Israel.

While her supporters say she was selected for the seat at such a young age due to her dynamism as a campaigner, it’s impossible to deny that in the most Jewish area in Britain, her background is a plus. In addition to that, much of her family and her husband's live in Israel, Sackman clerked for four months at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem and she peppers the interview with Hebrew slang.

“The fact is that in a place like London, people in the Jewish community often care about Sderot and Tel Aviv as much as they care about places much closer by. I admit that it sometimes diverts attention from things that a local MP can affect. I can’t really have much of an influence over foreign policy at this stage,” she admits.

But such discussion is unavoidable and the Labour candidate says that “talking about Israel is one of the most difficult challenges of the campaign” – especially as many in the community view Labour’s leader, Ed Miliband, as not being supportive enough of Israel.

Sackman’s rival, Freer, has worked hard to present himself as a staunch supporter of Israel. Last year when Parliament voted on a Labour motion to recognize a Palestinian state, the Conservative position was to be absent from the vote. Freer was one of a tiny handful of MPs who defied the party line and voted against. As a result he had to resign from his junior ministerial position, but in doing so he endeared himself to many of his Jewish voters.

“Being Jewish and having so many connections to Israel gives me the space to talk about this issue with nuance,” says Sackman. She also believes that most of the people who won’t vote Labour because of the party’s more critical positions on Israel wouldn’t have been Labour voters to begin with.

“To the credit of the community the Jewish intellectual imagination has always gone beyond the parochial. We always had thinkers who had a universal perspective and I think in London we also shouldn’t be parochial as a community,” she explains.

While Finchley boasts some of the wealthiest streets in London, Sackman stresses that there are also pockets of poverty in the constituency.

“In Golders Green," she notes, "one in every four children is living in poverty so you have microcosm here, and it’s the same with the Jewish communities.”

In a meeting a few days ago with residents of a Jewish old-age center, the main focus was on the low wages of the carers who couldn’t afford to live nearby, Sackman says: “There is everything here from the most Haredi to strong Reform synagogues which are focused on social justice. So there’s also the whole range of opinions on Israel, and Jews with every kind of political opinion.”

And as if to prove her words, the next door Sackman knocks on, one with a mezuzah next to it, is answered by a woman with a very Jewish name who informs her that, “I’m voting Labour but my husband won’t be voting because there’s no candidate who is a proper socialist!”