LONDON — If the polls are to be believed, Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is heading for a comfortable win when the country votes in December’s general election.
If so, that victory would apparently be welcomed by Jewish voters, who, surveys suggest, fear the consequences of the hard-left opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn moving into Downing Street. According to a poll published last week, just seven percent of British Jews said they would even consider supporting his Labour Party.
But the general election is set to be not only the most divisive and consequential in living memory, but also the most unpredictable.
It will be dominated by the issue of Brexit — the question which has dramatically reshaped the British political landscape since the 2016 referendum in which the country narrowly voted to leave the European Union.
Johnson, who became prime minister in July, repeatedly promised that “do or die” Britain would be out of the EU at 11 p.m. Thursday evening. That deadline, like two previous ones before it this spring, has been missed. Johnson is now telling Britons that only he can “get Brexit done” by January 31, the new date Europe has set for the UK’s exit.
With his Brexit ambitions frustrated by Parliament, Johnson has been attempting to force a general election for nearly two months.
It is not hard to see why.
The campaign begins with the Tories 10 points ahead, according to the Britain Elects poll aggregator. If that leads holds until election day, Johnson’s now minority government would capture a majority of more than 70 in the new House of Commons — the biggest afforded to any government since Tony Blair was reelected by a landslide in 2001.
Johnson also holds a formidable lead over Corbyn on the pivotal issue of who voters would prefer to see as prime minister. The Labour leader has a net satisfaction rating of minus 60.
“Labour enters the election well behind the Conservatives. This is largely because Jeremy Corbyn has the worst poll ratings of any opposition party leader,” says Peter Kellner, former president of the polling company YouGov.
He is skeptical of claims that Corbyn will be able to pull off the feat he achieved in the 2017 general election, when he overhauled then-prime minister Theresa May’s 25-point poll lead and sky-high personal ratings, and fought the Tories to a virtual draw which deprived the party of its parliamentary majority.
“Corbyn hopes that his popularity will rise sharply during the campaign as it did in the 2017 election. But Corbyn starts this time from a lower base than he did then – and voters’ views of him are less likely to change. In 2017, he had led his party for just a few months; many voters had yet to make up their minds about him. He is now better known, and the great majority of voters have clear, and overwhelmingly negative, views about him,” Kellner says.
Deborah Mattinson, founding partner at the strategy and insight consulting agency BritainThinks, also cautions against comparisons with 2017. “Corbyn’s not going to be up against Theresa May this time and, whatever Boris Johnson’s shortcomings are, I think, on the whole, he’s going to be a massively better campaigner than she was,” says Mattinson.
Focus groups are “not great” for either the prime minister or the Labour leader, she adds, but “Johnson does much better than Corbyn” on a whole range of measures.
Predictions are risky
Nonetheless, Mattinson believes that the election is going to be “hard to call.” The unusual winter election — the first Britons have faced in 40 years — and the fact that voters are “very, very, very fed up with the entire political class,” means that “turnout is going to be very tricky.”
James Morris, a former Labour pollster and now managing director for public affairs at global communications firm Edelman, agrees that the outcome may not be the foregone conclusion some appear to think it is.
“While the polls consistently show the Tories ahead, the election remains unpredictable,” Morris says.
“For the last 50 years, politics has primarily been a contest between two parties. Now we have at least four national parties that can attract significant numbers of votes, and no one knows how that will translate into parliamentary seats. Add to that the ability of campaigns to shift opinion and the mediocre record of the polls in getting the result right, and no one can know with certainty what will happen,” he says.
When Britain last went to the polls in 2017, over 80% of voters opted for either Labour or the Conservatives. Today, they poll a combined 60% as the increasingly contentious battle over Brexit has fragmented the political battleground and introduced a high level of volatility.
“The two big tribes now are ‘remain’ and ‘leave,’” says Mattinson. “It’s very difficult to see how that’s going to play out.”
The centrist Liberal Democrats, whose support has leaped from less than 8% in 2017 to close to 20%, are in favor of canceling Brexit and remaining in the EU. They will be competing against Labour — which has adopted a more equivocal position towards Brexit — for the support of “remain” voters.
But the Liberal Democrats also threaten to win support from the traditional Tory middle-class voters who dislike Johnson’s strongly pro-Brexit stance. This could potentially cost the Conservatives a slew of seats in London and the south of England. In Scotland, where opposition to Brexit is intense, Johnson risks the loss of vital seats to the Scottish National party.
The prime minister’s strategy is to offset these possible losses by winning seats off of Corbyn in Labour’s traditional heartlands in the pro-Brexit north of England. It is, though, a plan which has little room for error.
“Although the Conservatives may well make headway against Labour, they are likely to lose seats to the Scottish National Party in Scotland, and to the Liberal Democrats in those liberal, urban parts of England that lean towards Remain. They will have to make up all their losses, and make further gains, just to reach a bare majority — a very hard task,” says Prof. Glen O’Hara, who teaches modern and contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University.
Further complicating the picture is the Brexit party, which continues to poll around 10%. Its populist leader, Nigel Farage, will especially be contesting the north with Corbyn and Johnson, charging that the Tories have repeatedly failed to take Britain out of the EU and that Labour would defy voters’ wishes by ordering a second referendum.
“For Labour to avoid a heavy defeat, it needs Johnson to have a bad campaign, and for the Brexit party to hold onto its 10-12% of the vote by running a tough anti-Johnson campaign, accusing him and his deal with Brussels of betraying the cause of ‘true’ Brexit,” says Kellner.
Could the election — as in 2010 and 2017 — simply produce another hung parliament, one from which Corbyn may emerge as prime minister? Polling expert Lewis Baston believes that while it is “certainly possible” that the Labour leader could get to Downing Street, Corbyn would be “very constrained” if he did so. Not only is an overall majority unlikely — meaning he would have to rely on the SNP or Liberal Democrats — but the effort of Corbyn’s hard-left allies to alter the composition of the parliamentary party by deselecting moderate MPs has failed, Baston says.
While the Jewish community’s relatively small size limits its electoral potency, its voters are nonetheless clustered in a handful of traditionally marginal seats, many of them in north London: Finchley and Golders Green (where around 20% of voters — the highest concentration in the country — are Jewish), Hendon, Brent Central, Harrow East, Harrow West, Ilford North, Hornsey and Wood Green, Hampstead and Kilburn, and Chipping Barnet.
Once solidly Labour — when the party won its first majority under Clement Attlee in the 1945 general election, seats with large Jewish populations voted overwhelmingly for the party — the “Jewish vote” became less homogeneous over time as significant demographic shifts loosened old political allegiances.
Thus, unlike in the United States where most Jews remain solidly loyal to the Democratic party, Britain’s “kosher vote” has often proved a useful barometer of the battle for the political center ground.
In the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, Jewish voters strongly backed Margaret Thatcher’s Tories. But when Britain swung back to Labour under Tony Blair in 1997, constituencies with large Jewish populations fell to the party with greater than average swings. And in 2010, when Britain elected its first “hung parliament” since the 1970s, Jewish voters were evenly split, demonstrating many of the same characteristics as the country as a whole: Jewish men, those who were married, the over-60s, and the self-employed were all more likely to vote Conservative.
But when Labour began to drift to the left after its defeat in 2010, the remaining bonds between the community and the party began to fray. Ahead of the 2015 general election, a poll by the Jewish Chronicle found 69% of Jews intended to vote Tory with Labour winning the backing of 22%.
This, however, proved simply the prelude to the rupture in relations between Jews and the Labour Party which has occurred since Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in the wake of its 2015 defeat. Corbyn — a veteran anti-Israel activist — has seen the party rocked by multiple allegations of anti-Semitism, and Jewish support for the party has consequently plummeted. A poll conducted on the eve of the 2017 general election showed 77% of Jews planned to back the Tories and only 13% Labour.
Given the closeness of the 2017 result — the Tories only narrowly managed to remain in power after cobbling together an alliance with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party — Jewish voters may potentially have helped preserve May’s premiership. While Labour performed strongly in London, the Tories hung on to Finchley and Golders Green, Hendon and Chipping Barnet, albeit with sharply reduced majorities.
Had Corbyn not been so toxic to Jewish voters, it is arguable, the party might have won these three “bagel belt” seats. This would have further complicated the Tories’ chances of remaining in power.
Over the past two years, Corbyn’s unpopularity with Jewish voters has fallen further as the anti-Semitism crisis has deepened and the party has come under investigation by the UK’s anti-racism watchdog.
Last September, for instance, it was reported that nearly 40% of British Jews would “seriously consider emigrating” if Corbyn became prime minister. In March, a survey revealed that 87% of Jews view Corbyn as anti-Semitic (compared to just 1% for May).
As Andrew Barclay, a doctoral researcher at the University of Manchester, has suggested: “The degree of rejection of Labour is remarkable precisely because we know that levels of support for the party amongst Jewish voters have been healthy until recent elections.”
A new academic study conducted by Barclay and fellow researcher Maria Sobolewska has also contradicted the notion, advanced by some of Corbyn’s supporters, that it is the number of Jews in the Tory-leaning middle-class, not allegations of anti-Semitism within the party, that accounts for Labour’s poor showing in the community.
“We did not find any evidence that Jewish voters who are younger, female or who live in London were any less likely to vote Tory, despite these groups being significantly associated with supporting Labour in the wider electorate,” it says.
While the Jewish population is small, anti-Semitism in the Labour Party does appear to be registering among the wider electorate. Polling carried out in April found that more than half of all voters — including almost a third of those who backed Labour in 2017 — believe Corbyn’s failure to address the issue of Jew-hatred shows that he is not fit to be prime minister.
As Claudia Mendoza, director of policy and public affairs at the Jewish Leadership Council, argues: “From the polling we have done, there is no doubt that Corbyn’s inability to tackle anti-Jewish racism has had an impact beyond the Jewish community. Jews have friends, neighbors and colleagues who will have seen the strength of feeling.”
Mattinson points to another effect of the anti-Semitism issue. For quite a long time, voters in focus groups didn’t know what anti-Semitism meant, but that’s now changed.
“The electorate now feel that they know [Corbyn] and some of the things that they know about him they don’t like,” she says. “In some ways, the biggest thing it says to them is not so much that he’s racist, but that’s he unable to manage his very divided party.”
There are signs, however, that Jewish support for the Tories rests more on antipathy to Labour than affection for Johnson’s party. Last week’s Jewish Chronicle poll showed that 42% of Jews — a figure which rose to 57% among 18-34 year-olds — said they would consider voting Labour if Corbyn wasn’t leader.
These findings perhaps partly reflect the impact of Brexit. Johnson won strong backing from Jews during his eight years as London’s mayor. But views of him appeared to sour in the wake of the EU referendum, when Johnson led the campaign to leave and Jews backed remaining in Europe by a margin of two-to-one. When he briefly toyed with the idea of running for leader in 2016, polls showed Jewish voters easily preferred May to Johnson.
It is potentially significant that recent polling shows that the pro-EU Liberal Democrats might snatch Finchley and Golders Green from the Tories in December. In 2017, Labour came close to winning the seat, but it has now plunged to third place.
The party’s candidate is Luciana Berger, a former Labour MP who was a vocal Jewish opponent of Corbyn until she defected to the Liberal Democrats. The centrist party’s popularity is no doubt boosted by Berger’s high-profile stand against anti-Semitism, but anti-Brexit feeling also runs deep in the area. Nearly 70% of voters in Barnet, the local authority in which the constituency rests, backed remain in the 2016 referendum. In May’s European elections, the Liberal Democrats swept the board in Finchley and Golders Green.
If the Tories end up losing seats such as Finchley and Golders Green on December 12, the election may well not produce the outright victory Johnson craves. That would plunge Britain back into the political uncertainty and mayhem from which, the prime minister hoped, this winter campaign would rescue it.