LONDON — Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has long been a bête noire for the British Jewish community. His anti-Israel activism, combined with the spate of allegations of anti-Semitism in the party on his watch, triggered a visceral reaction.
As the elections results Friday showed a drift back to Labour that cost Theresa May’s Conservative Party its parliamentary majority and left May battered and discredited, British Jews seemed to move sharply in the opposite direction. A poll last week for the Jewish Chronicle had indicated that 77 per cent planed to vote Tory and only 13 per cent Labour, and nothing in the results appeared to contradict those findings.
Corbyn’s surge in support during the campaign – evident as the results came in overnight – was powered by young people. Young Jews, however, remained largely immune to his appeal: the JC poll indicating that less than one-quarter of those aged 18-34 planning to vote Labour.
Given the closeness of the result, Jewish voters, who are concentrated in a small number of highly marginal seats, may potentially have helped preserve May’s premiership.
Early indications had predicted that – in line with its strong performance in the capital – Labour would pull off a number of upset victories in the north London “bagel belt”. Finchley and Golders Green, Hendon and Chipping Barnet were all slated to fall to Corbyn’s party. Finchley and Golders Green – where an estimated one in five voters are Jewish – and Hendon would have been particularly sweet victories for the party. Both were contested by leading lights in the Jewish Labour Movement who had faced criticism within the community for attempting to unseat pro-Israel Tory incumbents.
In the end, Labour sharply reduced the Tories’ majorities in each but failed to capture them. In Chipping Barnet, the former cabinet minister, Theresa Villiers – a vocal supporter of Israel in parliament – clung on by just 353 votes. That the “Corbyn surge” in the capital faltered as it reached some suburbs with a strong Jewish vote may thus not be accidental, some political analysts have suggested.
From each of the two main parties, there were contrasting views. In Finchley and Golders Green, the narrowly re-elected Conservative MP, Mike Freer, pointedly thanked the Jewish community for “sticking with me” in his victory speech. In Hendon, where 17 per cent of the electorate is Jewish, Labour’s Mike Katz came within 1,000 votes of unseating Tory Matthew Offord. He later told the media: “To get as close as we did, there much have been a sizable number of Jews voting for Labour across the whole of Barnet.”
Nonetheless, many will wonder whether, had Corbyn not been so toxic within the Jewish community, Labour might have won an additional three seats which would have made the Tories’ chances of remaining in government much slimmer.
Elsewhere, however, London seats with a sizable Jewish vote saw sharp swings to Labour. In Ilford North, Wes Streeting, a dynamic young moderate with good relations with the community and a solidly pro-Israel record during his days as president of the National Union of Students, was defending one of his party’s smallest majorities in the country. Up against a Jewish Tory candidate, Lee Scott, who Streeting sensationally unseated in the 2015 general election, many believed Labour was heading for defeat. Streeting, however, gained a majority of just under 10,000 and declared himself “gobsmacked” by the result.
In Harrow West, Labour’s Gareth Thomas saw his majority shoot up from 2,000 to 13,000, while the party’s incumbent in Hampstead and Kilburn, Tulip Siddiq, also turned a narrow win in 2015 into a 15,000 majority last night. Harrow East, represented by Conservative Friends of Israel stalwart, Bob Blackman, saw a sharply reduced Tory majority.
Outside of London, Jewish candidates from all parties fared well. Labour’s Louise Ellman, a vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel who Corbyn supporters had attempted to unseat prior to the general election, was comfortable re-elected in Liverpool Riverside. In neighboring Liverpool Wavertree, Luciana Berger, a former director of Labour Friends of Israel who had been the victim of anti-Semitic harassment, won a whopping majority of nearly 30,000 votes.
Fabian Hamilton, another LFI supporter, held Leeds North-East and remains popular with Jewish voters in the seat. Dame Margaret Hodge, the highly respected former minister under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, secured a strong win in Barking, while the former Labour leader, Ed Miliband, held Doncaster North.
While David Winnick lost Walsall North after nearly four decades in parliament, other Jewish Labour MPs who had been heavily targeted by the Conservatives easily survived. Ruth Smeeth, who worked for both BICOM, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, and the anti-fascist Hope Not Hate campaign group before entering parliament in 2015, had once looked endangered in Stoke-on-Trent North. Instead, she swept to victory with over 50 per cent of the vote.
Similarly, the Tories had hoped to unseat the former minister and Labour Friends of Israel supporter, Ivan Lewis, in Bury South. Lewis easily won re-election. Strong support from students helped Alex Sobel, a member of the Jewish Labour Movement, score an upset win in Leeds North West, where he unseated the incumbent Liberal Democrat MP.
Labour Friends of Israel, which many had expected to wilt after Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, has instead flourished over the past two years with many moderate MPs flocking to support it. LFI was strengthened by the re-election of a number of its key parliamentary backers. In Enfield North, LFI chair Joan Ryan, was defending a narrow majority of just 1,086. Despite a concerted effort to unseat her, Ryan pulled off a stunning victory, driving her majority to just over 10,000. Whatever their political allegiance, many in the Jewish community will be delighted to see Ryan back in parliament, where she has held the government’s feet to the fire for failing to take a tougher stance on Palestinian incitement.
In Dudley North, Ian Austin – the adoptive son of a Holocaust survivor and another vocal supporter of Israel on the Labour benches – had faced an uphill battle to hold his West Midlands seat. Austin eked out a 22-vote win which will similarly please many in the community who respect Austin for his defence of Israel and repeated willingness to call out anti-semitism in Labour’s ranks. John Woodcock, a former chair of Labour Friends of Israel who had pledged that he would not vote to put Corbyn into No.10, also managed to defy the odds and narrowly win re-election in Barrow and Furness.
On the Tory benches, many Jewish Conservative MPs had a good night. Andrew Percy, who converted to Judaism this spring and is a vociferous Conservative Friends of Israel voice in parliament, was re-elected in Brigg and Goole. Jonathan Djanogly comfortably won in Huntingdon as did the former Cabinet minister, Oliver Letwin in West Dorset; Dominic Raab in Esher and Walton; and Michael Fabricant in Lichfield. The popular former political director of Conservative Friends of Israel, Robert Halfon, held Harlow, while Grant Shapps, the chairman of the Conservative party under Cameron, held Welwyn and Hatfield. Only Michael Ellis in Northampton North came close to defeat.
In Buckingham, the former Conservative MP, John Bercow, who is now Speaker of the House of Commons, won re-election virtually unopposed. One of the Liberal Democrats’ few Jewish voices, Julian Huppert, failed to recapture Cambridge, the seat he lost to Labour in 2015.
Nonetheless, both the Jewish community and its moderate allies in the Labour party, must now assess how to respond to Corbyn’s enhanced status, its meaning and repercussions. Some have already expressed dismay at the results.
Stephen Pollard, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, said as the scale of Corbyn’s upset unfolded: “What’s truly depressing is that Corbyn voters don’t care that he has such a deplorable record dealing with Labour anti-Semitism, which may be a minor concern to some, but to me is a giant two fingers from millions of voters to British Jews.” Indeed, many will question whether a political leader accused of inaction in the face of any other form of racism would have escaped punishment so easily.
Corbyn will argue that his form of hard left populism mobilized young and new voters and has proved the viable electoral project his detractors had long argued it would never be. Labour moderates had believed that a crushing defeat would contain a silver lining: the opportunity to see the back of Corbyn and his far left supporters. Such a moment would have provided an opening to begin repairing Labour’s fractured relationship with the Jewish community.
The election suggests that Britain’s Jews and Corbyn’s opponents within the party will now have to wrestle with the fact that his ascent to power two years ago was no aberration. Indeed, expect the hard left to use Corbyn’s new-found authority to move swiftly to bolster its power in the party.
This autumn, Labour’s conference will debate a change to its rules which would make it easier for hard left candidates to get on the ballot in future leadership elections. The vote on that rule change had looked finely balanced: Corbyn may now be able to win over waverers, push it through and ensure that Labour’s turn towards the hard left has a permanency few expected several weeks ago.
But can he go further? Labour is now pushing hard for May to resign and suggesting that it should be given the opportunity to form a government. The parliamentary numbers suggest that scenario – at least in the short-term – will not occur. Despite their fury at May, the Tories are unlikely to unseat her for now: the prospect of forcing a leadership contest which would give the country its third prime minister in a year unsettles many.
Recognizing that the momentum now lays with Labour, the Conservatives will likely do whatever they can to avoid another general election – one that could end with Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street.