Ethnicity and religion drive Hackney politics, not class, says Professor Geoffrey Alderman, a leading academic on British elections and modern British Jewry.
Alderman, a columnist for the Jewish Chronicle and writer for the Guardian and the Times (profile) tells Blood and Property that politicians are deluding themselves if they don't accept that people vote along ethnic lines.
GEOFFREY ALDERMAN: I went to Northwold Road school and then the Grocer’s Company's School Hackney Downs, which, in its time was the best state school in the country. From there I went to Oxford. I am the official historian of Hackney Downs school and when I went to the school it was so Jewish that it closed on the Jewish holidays, there was no point in keeping it open. The few Christian boys there wanted to know when the Jewish holidays were so they could find out when the school would be shut.
I’m not sure if the Jewish community is larger or smaller than it was, probably larger now. My grandfather moved from Spitalfields to Hackney circa 1937 and rented the property my parents later bought in Walsingham Road. The Jewish community I grew up in in the 1950s and 60s was traditional but, on the whole, not a strictly practising Jewish community. The black hat Jews of Stamford Hill today were in a tiny minority then and they were exotic oddities.
The area began to change character in the 1960s after the Hungarian uprising which the Soviets brutally repressed. The Hassidic Jews survived the holocaust in Hungary and began to move into Hackney in the 1960s. Now they form the majority of Jews there.
But as a youngster I never saw many Hassidic Jews, may be one or two, now they form the majority of Hackney Jewry and demographically they are the fastest growing section of British Jewry. In Stamford Hill and Stoke Newington you will find families of of 11, 12, 13. This has been one of the pressures for planning permission.
In Modern British Jewry I deal with the political organisation of the Orthodox Jews in Hackney. When I was doing the research in the late 70s and early 80s it was already evident to me that the growing ultra-orthodox community (acted) through Agudas Israel, an organisation which functions as a mini-welfare state, and which publishes a weekly paper, the Jewish Tribune, .
A very important part in this community has been played by Joe Lobenstein, four times Mayor of Hackney. In my book The Jewish Community in British Politics I mention him and the pioneering work he was doing especially in reviving Conservative politics amongst Jews in Hackney.
But he, I believe, was getting ultra-orthodox Jews to vote for him because he was Jewish, not because of the party he was in. This tendency was definitely being observed by me in the late 1970s – Jews voting for Jewish candidates irrespective of their party politics.
One might ask, is this democracy? Well of course it is. These Jews are British, they pay taxes and they vote. Who are you or I to tell them how to vote? If they want to vote in a particular way then that is their right, whether you celebrate it or despise it.
May I make a general point here? I don’t think we in England, or London have yet got used to the idea of an ethnic political system. In the US, ethnic politics is so conventional they don’t bat an eyelid. There’s the Jewish vote, the Irish vote, the Italian vote. They are used to an ethnic based politics. We are not.
When I started investigating it in the 1970s everyone was talking about class and how you had to understand class. Class - it was said - was the basis of the British political system, everything else was embellishment. But I saw something else in Hackney and it was more like the situation in the US, where socio-economic class is less important and ethnicity and religion are - often - much more important.
In the book I also refer to the fact that Agudas Israel was already beginning to acquire a level of sophistication. In another book I published in the 1980s on London Jewry, I also noted how Agudas Israel had taken the trouble to rebrand itself to get resources for its community as Hackney descended into a battleground between competing ethnic factions.
It had previously described itself as Jewish rather than as representing an ethnic minority. Previously the Jews of Hackney had projected themselves as British people. Agudas Israel was sensitive to the rise in ethnic politics and said: “We’re not part of the working class, we’re an ethnic minority and we're discriminated against. We need resources."
Agudas Israel went along to the Ken Livingstone-led Labour faction that then controlled the Greater London Council. This faction paid attention. Agudas Yisroel played the game brilliantly.
I am fascinated by the relationship between the left-wing Diane Abbott and this community. On the face of it they have nothing in common. She stands for things such as democracy, free speech and women's rights. These are anathema amongst the chassidim of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill. One has only to read the anti-feminist and anti-black rhetoric put out by the Jewish Tribune to see that this is so. As for the gays, the Tribune wouldn't even dare mention the term.
I recall that in 1978 there was terrible scandal when the Yiddish Tribune ran a piece criticising Greville Janner for defending black people in Parliament. The publishers didn’t realise that other people might speak Yiddish and the following week the West Indian World translated this appalling editorial. That doesn’t happen any more, but not because the views have changed but because the Jewish Tribune knows other people can understand Yiddish."
How many Jewish councillors are women? None. Why? Because the type of orthodoxy in Stamford Hill allocates a certain role to women: to get married, have as many children as possible and to maintain a Kosher home. And in the home it is the woman who is the boss, not the man.
How many female Orthodox Jewish school governors are there? Only the minimum required by law. However they can be teachers and head teachers but they cannot be in a position of political leadership. And as far as this community is concerned there is no such thing as a female Rabbi. Outside the home it is a male dominated society. It is ruled by Rabbis, it is a theocracy. (Alderman said that this might be changing as Bella Sharer, wife of Ian Sharer, leader of the Lib Dems in Hackney, is standing in the May 6 elections.)
Every article, every advertisement in the Jewish Tribune is approved by a Rabbinical censor. If you are defamed by the Jewish Tribune you can’t go to the PCC, it is one of only a handful of UK papers that is not a member.
That said, the community is generally disinterested in wealth and its members do tend to help each other when help is needed. The men "learn" Talmud all the day and it is the women who go to work. Interestingly, this community has no problem in principle with women working and there are some very wealthy women in the community.
Whether you or I like the community is irrelevant. The community is very well organised, very hospitable and very successful. Its members may dress in ways we find peculiar, but you won't find its youngsters involved in gun and knife crime that is, alas, so rampant now in the Hackney I once knew.