LONDON — When Theresa May triggered Britain’s snap general election, it appeared to be hers to lose. Over the past six weeks, she seems to have done her very best to do just that.
Ducking debates, a disastrous manifesto launch, and an inability to explain why she broke a pledge she had made repeatedly not to call an early election, have left the prime minister’s reputation for steady leadership looking altogether shaky.
With only days to go until the June 8 election, May’s Conservative party is ahead in the polls — although some put its lead at just three percent — and she remains the bookies’ favorite to remain in Downing Street after the votes have been counted.
However, with the opposition Labour Party closing the gap and a projection by one pollster that the country may be heading for a “hung parliament,” May’s decision to hold an election looks like a bigger gamble than it once appeared.
While opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s ratings have risen during the campaign (albeit from a rock-bottom base), one group of voters remain steadfastly opposed to him: Britain’s Jews. A poll published the week by the Jewish Chronicle showed the Tories with an impregnable 64-point lead over Labour.
At 77%, Jewish support for the Conservatives is up 10 points on the general election two years ago. Labour has dropped from 18% to 13% since 2015, the survey found. The Liberal Democrats have seen their support rise slightly from 5% when the country last went to the polls, to 7%.
According to research by the Institute of Jewish Public Policy Research, the “Jewish vote” leaned slightly towards the Conservatives when David Cameron won office in 2010 — it had swung heavily behind Labour on Tony Blair’s watch — but support for the Tories has surged over the past seven years. That Jews seem to be rejecting Labour in ever-greater numbers as the rest of the country appears to be slowly drifting back towards the party after its disastrous defeat in 2015 is in no way surprising, and is underlined by other findings in the Chronicle poll.
Over the past 18 months, Labour has faced a string of high-profile allegations of anti-Semitism, many involving Corbyn’s supporters. This ongoing scandal has not gone unnoticed, with Jews now judging Labour to have the biggest problem with anti-Semitism of all four of Britain’s main parties. Jewish voters were asked to place each of the main parties on a scale of one to five, with 1 representing “low levels of anti-Semitism among the political party’s members and elected representatives” and 5 representing “high levels.” Labour had the highest score of 3.94. The hard right United Kingdom Independence party had a rating of 3.63, with the Liberal Democrats on 2.7 and the Conservatives on just 1.96.
The imperviousness of the community to Corbyn’s appeal is demonstrated by Labour’s lack of support among young Jews. While the party nationally has a double-digit lead over the Tories among voters aged 18-34, it wins the support of only 23% of Jews in that age bracket. Among Jews aged over 55 — where support for the Conservatives among all voters is also the most pronounced — backing for Labour falls to just 9%.
The poll also indicates that support for Labour among Jews is slightly higher in Manchester, in the northwest of the country, than in London. Both Manchester and London look set to remain solidly Labour next week. However, Labour’s lack of backing among Jews may cost the party dearly in a number of marginal seats in the capital — such as Finchley and Golders Green, Hendon, Brent Central, Harrow East, Harrow West, Ilford North, Hornsey and Wood Green, and Hampstead and Kilburn — which have a sizable Jewish vote.
A long-time critic of Israel and pro-Palestinian activist who has had an unfortunate knack of consorting with a motley crew of Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites, the Labour leader is, perhaps, most famous in Jewish circles for having described Hamas and Hezbollah as ‘friends’
Labour needs to sweep these seats if it is to have any chance of forming a government. With projections this week suggesting many of them remain on a knife-edge — Hendon is rated a toss-up; Finchley and Golders Green and Harrow East likely Tory; Harrow West likely Labour; and Ilford North leaning to Labour — Jewish votes could constitute the difference between defeat and victory for several Labour candidates.
Most Jews made up their minds about Corbyn long before the campaign began.
A long-time critic of Israel and pro-Palestinian activist who has had an unfortunate knack of consorting with a motley crew of Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites, the Labour leader is, perhaps, most famous in Jewish circles for having described Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends.”
Unfortunately for his party, new revelations during the campaign will simply have reinforced many of these perceptions. Earlier this week, the Labour leader was forced to deny that he participated in a wreath-laying in 2014 at the grave of one of those involved with the Munich massacre. But Corbyn’s excuse — that he simply participated in a wider event marking Israel’s 1985 bombing of the PLO headquarters in Tunis, itself a response to the murder of 15 Israeli civilians in Palestinian terror attacks — rather demonstrated why so many Jews distrust him.
That story was swiftly followed by the release of a 2010 interview in which Corbyn described Hamas as “serious, hard-working and… not corrupt.”
Corbyn: Some parallels with Trump?
A Labour victory next week would represent the kind of unexpected upset akin to Donald Trump’s election last November. Nonetheless, while one hails from the hard right and the other from the far left, there are certain parallels between the two men.
Both are political outsiders — until his election in 2015, Corbyn had spent three decades on the backbenches, frequently rebelling against the Labour whip — who defied the political establishment to win the leadership of their parties.
Both have been consistently underestimated by their opponents and relish attacking the “mainstream media.”
And both have gained political traction with a strongly populist “us against them” campaign message designed to tap deep-seated anxieties. Trump’s victory was powered by turning out alienated white working-class voters; Corbyn’s hopes rest on a surge in support among disenchanted young people who often sit out polling day.
Just as Trump’s election sparked great unease among American Jews — 70% of whom voted for Hillary Clinton — so a Corbyn win would unsettle many Jews in Britain. The reasons are not hard to discern. Both men combine rote condemnations of anti-Semitism with a perception that they are altogether too tolerant of anti-Semitism within the ranks of their supporters.
Trump’s references to his family’s Jewish ties are echoed by Corbyn’s oft-repeated mentions of his mother’s involvement in protests against Oswald Mosley’s black shirts in the 1930s.
Indeed, anti-Semitic abuse directed at BBC journalist Emma Barnett this week after her tough questioning of Corbyn (which the Labour leader condemned) bore an uncanny resemblance to the way in which Trump supporters targeted Jewish reporters who displeased them.
Both Corbyn and Trump have also let into their inner circles individuals whom many Jews believe should have no place near the center of power. Trump brought far-right aides such as Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka into the White House; a Corbyn Downing Street would see prominent roles for key hard left advisers, such as Seamus Milne, the Labour leader’s director of strategy and communications.
‘It isn’t terrorism to fight back’
Milne, a former journalist for the left-leaning Guardian newspaper, is a long-time critic of Israel. Having appeared to call the founding of the Jewish state a “crime” in 2009, Milne has also been accused of being an apologist for terrorism. “It isn’t terrorism to fight back,” he said in 2014 of attacks from Hamas against Israel. “The terrorism is the killing of citizens by Israel on an industrial scale.”
A Corbyn victory would also provoke an immediate chill in relations with Israel. Labour’s manifesto is more balanced on the subject than many had feared: alongside a denunciation of settlement-building, it backs a two-state solution, gives no ground to the BDS movement and condemns Palestinian rocket and terror attacks.
However, the party is also committed to immediate recognition of a Palestinian state (a policy adopted under Corbyn’s Jewish predecessor, Ed Miliband) and, with its blasé cursory references to ending the “blockade” against Gaza, shows little appreciation of Israel’s security needs or why Israel has put in place the measures that it has.
Moreover, critics of Corbyn suggest the prominence given to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — it receives nearly 100 words against barely 40 on Syria — indicates the left’s ongoing fixation with the Jewish state.
Rhetorically, a Corbyn government will have few kind words to say about Israel — a dark cloud will hang over British celebrations of the centenary of the Balfour Declaration this autumn — but its bark is likely to be considerably worse than its bite.
A Corbyn government will have few kind words to say about Israel
With Britain leaving the EU, there will be little time or opportunity for Corbyn to join the ranks of other European countries wanting to adopt a tougher line with Israel.
Bogged down in Brexit negotiations, don’t expect, therefore, a “Prime Minister Corbyn” to get far with his previous pledges to suspend the EU-Israel Trade Agreement.
Corbyn’s rise impacts British Jews’ party affiliations
More likely, though, it will be May — perhaps minus the three-figure majority she once expected — who will be attending EU summits during the remaining two years of Britain’s membership. However, Labour’s rise in the polls may — if it is borne out on election day — still have a profound impact on the party’s relationship with the Jewish community.
Corbyn and his cadre of hardline allies have exercised a tenacious grip on power within the party since his election as leader. Last summer, he defied an overwhelming vote of no confidence by his parliamentarians and won a bitter fight for re-election by Labour members in September.
When the general election was called, many party moderates had seen a silver lining in May’s expected landslide: a crushing defeat which would sober up party members and force Corbyn out. The Labour leader’s aides had long hinted that he would stay on if the party surpassed the 30% vote share won by Miliband two years ago.
If, as the polls predict, Labour does indeed cross that threshold, Corbyn will claim the right to stay on. Even in defeat, a closer than expected race will allow him to suggest that, barely two years after he was elected to the leadership, he has earned the opportunity to continue “rebuilding” the party.
Such a scenario — with Corbyn’s personal authority enhanced and talk of a popular mandate for his hard left agenda — will drive Jews and the Labour party still further apart. Talk of moderate parliamentarians bolting Labour to found a new party may also gather pace.
If, however, the gap between the two parties widens again as voters take fright at the prospect of Corbyn in Downing Street — some polls continue to show the Tories with a commanding double-digit lead — the Labour leader may yet find himself out of a job after polling day.
Most of his likely successors, such as the moderate former Cabinet minister Yvette Cooper or the Blairites’ favorite, the youthful and telegenic Chuka Umunna, will see rebuilding bridges with the Jewish community as a symbolic way of drawing a line under the Corbyn era.
With the Labour leader and his hard left coterie banished, they may well find an open door. More than half of Jews suggested in this week’s poll that they would be more likely to vote for the party if it was led by someone other than Corbyn. The future of the once-close relationship between Labour and Britain’s Jews may thus be among the many issues next week’s election decides.