- One of the general election’s most anticipated contests is unfolding in a quiet suburb of north London.
- Liberal Democrat Luciana Berger is confident of overturning the Conservative majority of over 20,000 to win the seat of Finchley & Golders Green.
- Berger is hoping to win the support of residents who feel let down by the Conservatives and Labour. A poll published last month suggested she was on course to a historic victory.
- Nearly 70% of people in Finchley & Golders Green voted Remain in 2016.
- The Labour Party has accused the Lib Dems of exaggerating their support, and says it is a two-horse race between it and the Conservatives.
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One of the biggest stories of the December general election could well emerge from a quiet suburb of north London.
Finchley & Golders Green, in the leafy borough of Barnet, has always been a two-horse race between the Conservatives and Labour. Since 2010, it has been held by Mike Freer, who is a whip in Boris Johnson’s Tory government.
The Liberal Democrats finished a distant third here in 2017, more than 20,000 votes behind the two main parties. However, Liberal Democrat candidate Luciana Berger believes she could be about to claim an historic victory.
“We have struggled to find a single door where anyone passionately wants to support either the Labour Party or the Conservatives,” she told Business Insider while out canvassing in the constituency this week.
Berger joined the Liberal Democrats in September after quitting the Labour Party earlier this year. She briefly joined the short-lived centrist party, Change UK, before finding her new home in the party led by Jo Swinson.
With a new political party has come a new constituency, too. Up until recently, Berger was the MP for Liverpool Wavertree, but now she is campaigning to represent the north London seat where her family is based.
Berger and nearly a dozen Lib Dem activists canvassed a hushed pocket of East Finchley on Wednesday night.
The first door was opened by a man who offered to volunteer for her campaign after revealing that he had cut lifelong ties with the Conservatives since Johnson took over as leader. A few doors down, a French-born lawyer said she was abandoning the Tories over what the party “has done to our institutions” in its pursuit of Brexit.
Just around the corner, close to the Labour Party’s constituency HQ, a former geography teacher said she had “given up” on Jeremy Corbyn’s party, and was considering voting Liberal Democrat for the first time in her life.
“I know he [Corbyn] is a nice man – but he’s not a leader,” she said.
“I’m uneasy about the anti-Semitism. I’ve got Jewish friends.”
Labour’s anti-Semitism problem is a salient issue in Finchley & Golders Green, where more than 20% of residents are Jewish.
Richard Logue, a Liberal Democrat activist who quit the Labour Party in late 2016, said: “I’m not Jewish but my wife and kids are. And at that stage, some of the hard left inside the party were sharing stuff that I found abhorrent.”
The Liberal Democrats believe their unequivocal commitment to cancelling Brexit will help Berger win this strongly pro-Remain seat. Nearly 70% of Finchley & Golders Green voted to stay in the EU in 2016. The Greens have stood aside for Berger as part of an anti-Brexit electoral pact brokered by the cross-party Unite to Remain group.
Berger said: “Many Conservatives here are massively disaffected by the prospect of a Johnson Brexit facilitated by their MP. And many doors are those of ex-Labour supporters who can’t countenance the prospect of Corbyn in Number 10.”
‘This has to be a target seat for Labour if you’re going to form a majority government, absolutely’
Labour’s candidate here, Ross Houston, said the Liberal Democrats were exaggerating their support in Finchley & Golders Green, and accused the anti-Brexit party of distributing misleading polling to residents.
“That’s the sort of tactic we are up against,” Houston told Business Insider.
The Liberal Democrats were forced to apologise last week for misrepresenting polling on leaflets distributed in several seats. Berger said that the Survation poll of the seat published in October, which put her in first place, was not in that category.
Houston, a local councillor of well over ten years, said that conversations he was having on doorsteps pointed to another two-horse race between Labour and the Conservatives, despite the Liberal Democrats’ confidence.
“I know from the feedback I get from people who are in the know that it’s going to be very close – and we are very much in the game,” he said.
“The Remain United analysis is far nearer to what we are hearing on the doorsteps.”
Gina Miller’s Remain United campaign this week published national polling that saidHouston was in second place on 35%, seven points behind Conservative candidate Freer, who was on 42%. The same survey put Berger on 22%. The research has since been updated to put Labour on 29% and the Liberal Democrats on 28%.
Houston sought to rubbish Berger’s claim that she is the only pro-Remain candidate in Finchley & Golders Green.
“In Barnet politics, I don’t think anyone has done more than me in terms of Brexit as an issue,” he told Business Insider. Houston chairs the local People’s Vote group and has a signed a pledge to campaign for Remain in any new referendum.
“I’d prefer to have a referendum and then an election, myself […] I wish we had come to the policy we have now sooner.”
He said that while anti-Semitism is an issue that Labour at national level “has not been handled well,” he was confident that the Jewish community in Finchley & Golders Green would not desert the party on December 12.
“It does come up but I think people know that the local party has taken a very strong line on it.
“People who know me and know what I’ve said will know that if the party doesn’t sort the issue out, which it is committed to doing, then I’ll be one of the MPs who is calling the party out.”
While Berger’s campaign has attracted a lot of attention, the stakes here are high for the Labour Party. Houston admitted that without a victory in Finchley & Golders Green, Labour has no realistic path to a majority next month.
“This has to be a target seat for Labour if you’re going to form a majority government, absolutely.”
Freer tries to hold on to moderate Conservatives
Like Labour, the local Conservative party is dismissive of Berger’s chances, and claims its own vote is holding up well.
Freer, who was not available to speak to Business Insider, told the Evening Standard this week that he was a “one nation Conservative friend of the Jews.”
Whether previous Conservative voters in Finchley & Golders Green believe Freer really is “one nation” will be key to determining the outcome here. His supporters are keen to stress that like most residents, Freer voted for Remain, and even backed a confirmatory referendum, or People’s Vote, during House of Commons indicative votes in April.
However, his opponents point to the role he played as a whip in trying to force Johnson’s Brexit deal through Parliament, particularly the booting out of 21 self-described one nation MPs from the Tory party in September.
Labour’s Houston told Business Insider “being a whip while they expelled the 21 Tories is not a good look. I was quite surprised – I thought he [Freer] might resign over that.”
All three parties believe it is all to play for Finchley & Golders Green. Like in many other seats at this election, all bets are off.