At around 1:30 on Friday morning, when the election results for the constituencies of Workington and Darlington were announced in quick succession, it became clear that a TV exit poll predicting a landslide win for the Conservatives was fairly accurate. These are two parts of England that have voted Labour for decades; now both had abandoned the party led by Jeremy Corbyn, and swung behind Boris Johnson.
As the night wore on, the flow of results confirmed the stinging extent of Corbyn’s defeat, and what Johnson on Friday described as a “stonking” and “historic” victory. Devastated, Corbyn quickly announced, not his immediate resignation, but that he would “not lead the party in any future election.”
A victory this big can be ascribed to many factors. And given that the election was focused on Johnson’s pledge to implement Brexit and bring Britain out of Europe, the result marks an emphatic endorsement of that stance — what Johnson called a powerful mandate to “get Brexit done.” But it also signals a personal repudiation of Corbyn.
The vast majority of British Jews will have cautiously celebrated the exit poll figures, and watched with mounting relief as they were largely confirmed in the course of the night and into Friday morning. The danger that Britain would be led by a lifelong opponent of Israel, a party leader who has allowed anti-Semitism to flourish in Labour, had been averted.
Were Labour to have been narrowly defeated, some of Corbyn’s supporters might have sought to place some blame on the Jewish community, who they have accused of inflating Labour’s anti-Semitism problem. Indeed Ken Livingstone, the former Labour mayor of London who insists that Hitler was initially a Zionist and who has termed Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis “lies and smears,” attempted to do just that, sneering that “The Jewish vote wasn’t very helpful.”
But most of even Corbyn’s most fervent supporters know that responsibility for a defeat so overwhelming, Labour’s worst since the 1930s, can only be ascribed to the party leader himself.
Johnson is among the more charismatic but not the most credible of politicians. Notoriously, ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum, he penned two op-eds — one in favor of leaving Europe and one in favor of remaining — and published the version that he determined best served his political interests. He briefly succeeded in suspending Parliament earlier this year to try to ram through his version of Brexit legislation, only to be humiliatingly told by Britain’s highest court that his actions were illegal. He ran an unsubtle campaign focused on Brexit full of questionable financial assertions, took a reporter’s phone and put it into his pocket rather look at the photograph he was being shown of a young boy on a hospital floor in Britain’s troubled health service, and disappeared into a walk-in freezer to avoid an unwanted interview request.
That he won these elections as dramatically as he did, in a Britain so profoundly divided over Brexit, underlines that at least part of the electorate voted Conservative because, above all else, it was so alienated by, and fearful of, a prime minister Corbyn. Many of Corbyn’s pledges to address inequalities in Britain, notably to reallocate national resources to such resonant causes as the National Health Service and education, struck a chord, but he was plainly not trusted even by many of those who shared much of his agenda.
Horrified by the ongoing evidence that Labour was riddled by anti-Semitism, and that Corbyn’s pledges to be dealing with it were empty, Britain’s generally understated Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis went to the unprecedented length of penning an article that did everything short of pleading with Britons not to vote Labour. Evidently, Mirvis acted because he knew he would not be able to face himself the morning after, had he not done everything in his power to help avert a Corbyn victory.
The leader’s defeat now gives Labour, once the traditional party of working class Jews, the opportunity to remake itself into a palatable and credible political force. Whether it does so will depend on whether the Corbynites outlive Corbyn — whether many of the radicals who have flooded into Labour on his coat-tails retain their positions of power or are now returned to the margins.
On Sky News Friday morning, presenter Kay Burley discussed the reasons for Labour’s whopping defeat with its chairman, MP Ian Lavery. Interrupting his attempts at an explanation, Burley asked him bluntly whether it all came down to voters’ belief that “Your leader is an anti-Semite, and as a result they didn’t trust him on the security and safety of the nation.”
Lavery tried to respond, denying that assessment, but Sky had to cut him off and turn its cameras elsewhere. Boris Johnson was making a victory speech.
It wasn’t Jewish outrage at anti-Semitism in Labour that stands at the heart of the Conservatives’ victory. But as Sky’s Burley highlighted, one factor was indeed many Britons’ revulsion for that anti-Semitism, and their internalization of what it said about Corbyn and the kind of government he would have led.