LONDON — United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s majority was sealed on December 12 by the Tories’ demolition of Labour’s “red wall” – a string of seats, many of them held by the party for decades, which stretches from North Wales to the North Sea. In many regards it thus echoed the manner in which Donald Trump knocked holes in the Democratic “blue wall” to seize the United States presidency three years ago.
Among the casualties of the Conservative attempt to expand the electoral map was the parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, Ruth Smeeth, who lost her Stoke-on-Trent North constituency. Smeeth had been a frequent target for anti-Semites both within and beyond the Labour Party. She laid the blame for her defeat squarely at party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s feet, telling Sky News on Friday: “His personal actions have delivered this result for my constituents and for swathes of the country overnight.” Smeeth also said, “Jeremy Corbyn’s actions on antisemitism have made us the nasty party. We are the racist party.”
The devastation wrought by Johnson was also evident in seats such as Leigh in north-west England, where Labour had won since the 1920s; Wrexham in Wales, which Labour had held since the 1930s; and Blyth Valley in the north-east which, until Thursday, had never returned a Conservative MP to Parliament.
The Tory strategy rested on reaching out to pro-Brexit voters – many of them older, working-class and non-graduates – in Labour’s heartlands.
Johnson repeatedly hammered home the line that only he could “get Brexit done” and, as the Leave campaign did in the 2016 EU referendum, pushed an anti-immigration message. He also ruthlessly exploited the terrorist attack at London Bridge on November 29, and vowed a tougher line on crime.
But the prime minister also sought to appeal beyond the party’s base by running an unconventional Tory campaign which promised higher spending and emphasized his commitment to the UK’s National Health Service.
Aided by the decision of Nigel Farage’s Brexit party to withdraw from all the seats the Tories were defending, Johnson managed to successfully unite the vote of most of those who had voted to leave the EU in 2016. By contrast, the anti-Brexit “remain” vote was split between Labour and the centrist Liberal Democrats.
But it was the Labour leader himself who appears to have been Johnson’s greatest boon. Despite the popularity of many of the party’s pledges, Corbyn’s record-breaking disapproval ratings ultimately proved toxic to the Labour Party.
Corbyn was repeatedly attacked by the Tories and the press for his long association with terrorist groups, including the IRA, Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as his failure to tackle anti-Semitism within Labour’s ranks. On the eve of the election, 15 former Labour MPs publicly urged voters not to back their party, citing Corbyn’s record on anti-Semitism and extremism.
The ‘bagel belt’ backs Boris
The fear and distrust of Corbyn was evident in the small number of marginal seats – most notably, the north London “bagel belt” – in which the Jewish vote is concentrated.
In Finchley and Golders Green, where just over one in five voters are Jewish, the Conservatives went into the election with a narrow 1,657 majority over Labour. But Labour was pushed into third place after the Liberal Democrats picked Luciana Berger, the Jewish former Labour MP who quit the party over anti-Semitism in February, as their candidate.
Despite high expectations that she would be able to capture the seat, Berger came up short by more than 6,500 votes, losing to the incumbent Mike Freer, a member of Conservative Friends of Israel. She blamed her defeat on fears of a Corbyn premiership. Her loss may also have been due to Labour’s decision to shift activists into the seat – a strategy which appeared more designed to split the anti-Tory vote and defeat Berger than elect its own candidate.
In neighboring Hendon, a constituency with the second largest Jewish population, the Tories’ pre-election majority more than doubled to over 4,000 votes as David Pinto-Duschinsky, one of up to nine Jews standing as Labour candidates, was easily defeated.
And in Chipping Barnet, which contains about 6,000 Jewish voters, Tory Cabinet minister Theresa Villiers pushed her majority from just over 300 to 1,212. Labour had gone into the election hopeful that it could unseat Villiers, a prominent pro-Israel voice in the House of Commons.
In another London marginal with a sizable Jewish vote, Harrow East, the Tories’ Bob Blackman beat Labour by 8,170 votes, more than four times his majority at the 2017 election.
The Tory majority also rose sharply in Hertsmere, just beyond the capital, which contains the biggest Jewish community outside of London. Holly Kal-Weiss, another Jewish Labour candidate, saw her party’s vote drop by seven points in a seat where 15% of voters are Jewish.
In Bury South, in the north-west of England, the Conservatives overturned a nearly 6,000 Labour majority in a seat with 9,000 Jewish voters. It had been represented for 22 years by Ivan Lewis, a Jewish Labour MP who served as a minister in the last Labour government. Lewis quit Labour last year and endorsed the Tories in the general election. He estimated this week that 5-10% of Jewish voters in the seat would back Labour, down from 60-65% in recent elections.
There was better news for Labour in Leeds North East, home to much of the Yorkshire city’s 10,000 Jewish voters. The party’s Jewish candidate, Fabian Hamilton, comfortably retained the seat. Hamilton, who has faced criticism for serving on Labour’s frontbench under Corbyn, defeated a Tory candidate who was suspended by the party following revelations that he had suggested that British Jews visiting Israel were returning to the UK as “brainwashed extremists.”
In Scotland, the Conservatives had a more difficult night than they did south of the border. Their difficulties were symbolized by the results from East Renfrewshire, south of Glasgow, which is home to the biggest Jewish community in Scotland. Like the rest of Scotland, the seat voted heavily to remain in the EU and the incumbent Tory MP paid the price for his party’s strongly pro-Brexit stance. Paul Masterton, a frequent defender of Israel in Parliament, was defeated by the Scottish National party (SNP), from whom he had taken the seat in 2017. The seat had been strongly Labour during Tony Blair’s premiership.
Elsewhere in Scotland, the SNP won the key marginal of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath from Labour with a candidate it had suspended for alleged anti-Semitism. Neale Hanvey, who will sit in the House of Commons as an independent, apologized for the two-year-old social media posts. (It is impossible for parties to change candidates in the UK once nominations have closed.)
Hardly any Jewish Labour MPs
Labour looks set to have the lowest number of Jewish MPs the party has had in the House of Commons in decades. Aside from Hamilton, only former party leader Ed Miliband, Leeds MP Alex Sobel and arch-Corbyn critic Dame Margaret Hodge return to the new House of Commons. A new Jewish Labour MP, Charlotte Nichols, was elected in Warrington North in north-west England. The Jewish exodus from Labour is evident in the fact that, when the party suffered a similar-sized defeat in 1983, it still returned 19 Jewish MPs.
One of the few Jewish Tory MPs defeated in the election was Zac Goldsmith. Goldsmith, a vocal Brexit supporter, was easily ousted by the Liberal Democrats in the heavily pro-remain south-west London suburb of Richmond Park.
Other incumbent Jewish Tory MPs, such as Transport Secretary Grant Shapps; Conservative Friends of Israel stalwart Andrew Percy; and Home Office minister Lucy Frazer were all re-elected. So, too, was CFI’s former political director, Robert Halfon.