From Israel and its critics to the Day of Rest, Jewish storylines feature in UK election

Labour leader Keir Starmer, predicted to coast to victory on Thursday, appears to have succeeded in persuading Jews to restore support for his party after Corbyn antisemitism era

Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer walks with his wife Victoria at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool, England, on Oct. 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Jon Super, File)
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer walks with his wife Victoria at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool, England, on Oct. 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Jon Super, File)

LONDON (JTA) — Britain will go to the polls on Thursday in an election that will likely produce a once-in-a-generation political earthquake, and mark a notable shift for the country’s Jewish voters.

The opposition Labour Party is poised to win a historic victory over the Conservatives. The election will also constitute a pivot for the United Kingdom’s 290,000 Jews — precisely because they too are expected to vote largely for Labour after years of breaking with it.

Labour leader Keir Starmer — who has a Jewish wife — is expected to be the next prime minister, dislodging Rishi Sunak, and the scale of Labour’s projected victory is immense: Polling indicates that the Conservatives, who have been in power for 14 years, could win fewer than 100 seats out of the 650 in the House of Commons. It would be their worst defeat since the advent of modern democracy in Britain in 1832.

Britain’s Jewish community was considered broadly centrist for decades, but that all changed in 2015, when the veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn became the Labour Party’s leader. Labour quickly became plagued with persistent antisemitism allegations that Corbyn proved either unable or unwilling to resolve. British Jews abandoned Labour in historic numbers in the 2017 and 2019 elections, and Corbyn lost the latter in a landslide.

In the years since Starmer succeeded Corbyn, he has moved to aggressively tackle antisemitism within Labour, and has reached out to the Jewish community in a bid to regain trust. This seems to have worked: After almost a decade, many Jews now say they plan to vote Labour.

“Today, happily, Britain’s Jewish communities can decide who to vote for on everyday issues like everyone else,” Ian Austin, an unaffiliated Jewish member of the House of Lords, wrote in London’s Jewish Chronicle. “That is a huge change from the existential worries facing Jewish people in 2019.”

In addition, the campaign’s final days have seen a Jewish controversy: Conservatives have attacked Starmer for taking Friday night as family time — criticism some British Jews have said carried uncomfortable undertones.

Britain’s Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Rishi Sunak, and Labour Party leader Keir Starmer attend a live TV debate, hosted by The BBC, in Nottingham, on June 26, 2024, in the build-up to the UK general election on July 4. (Phil Noble / POOL / AFP)

Here’s what you need to know about the UK’s July 4 election, and how it affects British Jews — and Jewish officials whose seats are at risk.

Labour is poised to win the Jewish vote

According to a poll published last week by the UK’s Institute for Jewish Policy Research, Jewish voting intentions mirror the country’s as a whole.

The poll found that in the country’s multiparty system, 46 percent of Jews plan to vote Labour, compared to 30% who say they will support the Conservatives. Other parties will receive smaller shares of the Jewish vote: 10% will vote for the left-wing Green Party, 8% for the centrist Liberal Democrats and 6% for Reform UK, a populist anti-immigration party. Negligible numbers are due to vote for Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties.

The biggest shift among Jews is in the vote for Labour. In 2019, at the height of Corbyn’s antisemitism crisis, the party polled at an all-time low of 11% among Jews. But Starmer vowed a “zero-tolerance approach” on the issue, implementing the recommendations of a government commission that found the party had treated Jewish members unlawfully. Starmer expelled Corbyn from the party and worked to root out antisemitism. In May, he told the Jewish News, “The changes I have made to Labour are permanent.”

Labour has clearly been trying to underscore that message. It has distributed a leaflet in Hendon, a constituency with a large Jewish population, signed by four senior Jewish political figures who were targeted during the antisemitism crisis. It read: “We are proud that under Keir Starmer, Labour has changed for good.”

Jeremy Corbyn, left, sits waiting to speak next to Keir Starmer during an election campaign event on Brexit in Harlow, England, November 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Now, Jews say they’ll vote for Labour in slightly higher numbers than the general population.

“Jews are remarkably similar to the UK population as a whole,” wrote Jonathan Boyd, the executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. “Outwardly, our dominant concerns seem to be about Israel and antisemitism, but inwardly — in our day-to-day lives — we’re focused on the same issues as the rest of British society, such as health care, education and the cost of living.”

There are splits among Jews by denomination

Below the topline polling figures, there are splits beneath the surface. As in the United States, the Orthodox Jewish community trends rightward, and Orthodox Jews overwhelmingly intend to vote Conservative. If those numbers bear out, it could make Orthodox Jews the very few reliably Tory communities left in Britain in 2024.

Jews affiliated with progressive synagogues, meanwhile, along with unaffiliated Jews, will vote in large numbers for Labour. As in the rest of the country, Labour is set to perform relatively well among Jewish women and younger Jewish voters.

Conservatives are facing backlash for attacking Starmer’s Friday night family time.

Starmer’s family belongs to a Liberal synagogue in north London, and he has spoken in the past about trying to be home with his family on Friday night, the beginning of Shabbat.

“It is about just being with the family,” he told the Jewish Chronicle in 2020. “It’s about being a bit more disciplined, about being home with our children and the family — they are growing up fast.”

In recent days, that commitment has come under attack from Conservatives, who are citing it to argue that as prime minister, Starmer won’t be on the job 24-7.

“Keir Starmer has said he’d clock off work at 6pm if he became Prime Minister,” the party posted on X yesterday. “You deserve better than a part-time Prime Minister.”

Protesters wait outside a live TV debate between Britain’s Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Rishi Sunak, and Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, hosted by The BBC, in Nottingham, on June 26, 2024, in the build-up to the UK general election on July 4. (Phil Noble / POOL / AFP)

Labourites as well as Jewish commentators have bristled at the criticism.

“It’s an admirable aim for anyone, but for Jews, this is deep in our DNA,” wrote Stephen Pollard, the Jewish Chronicle’s editor-at-large, about Friday night dinner. The Conservatives’ post, he wrote, had the effect of “distorting [Starmer’s] words beyond all recognition” and “effectively telling every Jew in Britain who spends time with his family on a Friday night, rather than working, that they — we — are lazy good-for-nothings.”

John Mann, the government’s independent adviser on antisemitism, described the attacks as “insidious.” The former Labour MP, who now sits in the House of Lords, wrote on X: “The attack on Keir Starmer for asserting his right to family time on a Friday night, as he has done for many, many years, is so dangerous. So insidious from those aware of why he chooses to be with his family specifically on Friday evenings.”

The Labour leader called the attack “laughably pathetic.”

He added, “As people will appreciate, we use that [time] for family prayers — not every Friday, but not infrequently,” he added in a radio interview.

More broadly, Starmer said maintaining Jewish traditions is important to the family.

“We’re very keen for the children to know about it, to understand it,” he said.

Israel has featured prominently in an otherwise staid campaign

Despite the potential for a landslide opposition victory, the actual campaign has been rather quiet — except, that is, when it comes to Israel and Gaza.

In the weeks after Hamas’s devastating October 7 attack on Israel, Labour supported Israel’s military campaign to destroy the Palestinian terror group. Starmer’s wife has family in Israel, and he came out in support of Israel’s actions in the days after the attack.

“Obviously everything should be done within international law, but I don’t want to step away from the core principles that Israel has a right to defend herself and Hamas bears responsibility for the terrorist acts,” he said on October 11.

Festivalgoers walk past anti-Conservative, pro-Labour graffiti on the fourth day of the Glastonbury festival at Worthy Farm in the village of Pilton in Somerset, southwest England, on June 29, 2024. (Oli SCARFF / AFP)

In another parallel to the United States, that stance has antagonized the pro-Palestinian activists in Labour’s base. And while the party initially held off calling for a ceasefire, it now firmly backs one, though it has avoided calling for a cessation of arms exports to Israel. Labour has also stated that it would comply with any International Criminal Court arrest warrant for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Starmer said earlier in June that his focus as prime minister would be to help release the remaining hostages held in Gaza.

“The first and most fundamental thing is getting that ceasefire, ensuring we can get hostages out,” he said, adding: “I shudder to think what state they will be in.”

Rishi Sunak has been steadfast in his support for Israel but has also expressed concern at the ongoing bloodshed in Gaza. Under Sunak, the UK has claimed that the International Criminal Court does not have jurisdiction to issue arrest warrants over the conflict in Gaza. On Saturday, the prime minister made another pitch to Jewish voters on the issue while visiting the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Golders Green.

“I will be steadfast in standing by Israel in its time of need,” he said. “I will not try and bully Israel into making concessions that are not in its interests. Israel deserves to live in peace and security.”

Apart from Israel, both the Conservatives and Labour have committed to improving security for the local Jewish community. One issue that may be motivating for some Jewish parents is Labour’s popular promise to end a tax exemption for private schools, which would impact Jewish schooling. The Board of Deputies, a Jewish umbrella group, has appealed to Labour to re-examine the policy.

Where will the Jewish vote matter most?

Jewish voters will be watching for whether Jewish Conservative incumbents can hold onto their seats against the likely Labour landslide. These will include heavy-hitters such as Defence Secretary Grant Shapps and Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer, both of whom seem likely to lose.

And while the overall number of British Jews is small — 290,000 in a country of some 67 million — the community is highly concentrated in a small number of parliamentary constituencies. That means that their votes can have a significant impact in those races.

Britain’s Prime Minister and Conservative Party Leader Rishi Sunak, delivers a speech during a visit to the Machzike Hadath Synagogue in Golders Green, north London, on June 30, 2024. (James Manning / POOL / AFP)

There are eight constituencies where Jews make up more than 5% of the population, topped by Finchley and Golders Green in northwest London, where more than one-fifth of voters are Jews.

Many seats with large Jewish populations are competitive ones, where the Jewish vote could play a role in tipping the balance in favor of one party. In Conservative-held Finchley and Golders Green, Jewish Labour candidate Sarah Sackman is expected to edge out her opponent in a tightly fought race. Sunak, wearing a kippah, was out campaigning there on Sunday, talking up his support for Israel at a synagogue and a Jewish deli.

“The great thing about this election is that British Jews have a choice,” Sackman told the Jewish News. “I think people can see that I’m someone who is committed to public service, and as far as the Jewish community is concerned, standing up and being a strong voice for our community.”

Labour is almost certain to flip other constituencies with a large Jewish population, such as Hendon and Chipping Barnet, both in north London, and Bury South, near Manchester. The only seat with a large Jewish presence where the Conservatives could hold on by a whisker is Hertsmere, where 17% of voters are Jews. Jewish Labour candidate Josh Tapper is working to pull off a huge upset by unseating Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden.

In this video grab taken from footage broadcast by the UK Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) via the Parliament TV website on March 25, 2024, Britain’s Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden makes a statement in the House of Commons.(PRU / AFP)

Dowden, in a recent interview, made a pitch for Conservatives by asking Jewish voters to judge the incumbent government on its actions.

“When Israel was attacked by Iran, for the first time in the history of the UK we stood alongside Israel and British aircraft intercepted those attacks,” he said. “If you look at the fundamental positions taken by the government, we have been true to our word.”

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