Explainer

What part will UK Jews play in the country’s July 4 general election?

Once wracked by antisemitism, a cleaned-up Labour Party looks set to unseat the Tories on July 4, but strongly anti-Israel opponents may siphon votes from moderate Keir Starmer

Robert Philpot

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and the author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, right, and Labour Party leader Keir Starmer pass through the Peer's Lobby to attend the State Opening of Parliament, at the Palace of Westminster in London, Nov. 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant, Pool, File)
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, right, and Labour Party leader Keir Starmer pass through the Peer's Lobby to attend the State Opening of Parliament, at the Palace of Westminster in London, Nov. 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant, Pool, File)

LONDON — With the dissolution of parliament on May 30, Britain’s general election will formally get underway.

Although the July 4 vote is over a month off, the opposition Labour Party appears to be on track for victory — potentially by a landslide margin.

Labour leads the governing Conservative party by around 20 points in the polls. While campaigns have sometimes seen the gap close as election day approaches — in 2017, Theresa May saw her massive poll lead whittled down to a couple of points in the final outcome — the Tories face some uncomfortable historical precedents.

As polling expert Lewis Baston wrote in a gloomy analysis for Rishi Sunak, the current prime minister, only twice in modern history — in 1970 and February 1974 — has a party gone on to win an election after trailing in the polls when the election was called. In neither of those campaigns was the gap near the 20% now faced by the Conservatives, who have held the premiership for the past 14 years.

Still, Sunak believes that an apparent uptick in the economy — inflation fell to near-normal levels on the day he fired the election starting gun — may help to chip away at Labour’s huge lead. He’ll also be aware that Labour leader Keir Starmer himself faces a huge electoral mountain to climb. So devastating was the defeat inflicted on Labour under his far-left predecessor Jeremy Corbyn in the December 2019 general election that the party requires a swing greater than it has ever achieved simply to get a majority of one in the House of Commons.

Moreover, as former May pollster James Johnson noted last week, around one in six voters is undecided and, according to his research, they are much more socially conservative than voters as a whole. This could mean a pool of voters for the Tories to potentially tap — although they’ll have competition from Reform UK, a right-wing populist party descended from Nigel Farage’s Brexit party.

All that said, Starmer remains both the bookies’ and the pollsters’ favorite to form the next government at Buckingham Palace on July 5. “It would take a turnaround in public opinion that is absolutely unprecedented in British history for Sunak’s Conservatives to still be in government on 6 July,” Baston wrote.

So what role will Britain’s Jewish voters play in the election — and how might the campaign and its outcome affect them?

A woman leaves a polling station after voting in the London local elections, May 2, 2024, seen as a bellwether before the July 4 UK general election, in which all indicators show will see the Conservative Party ousted from power after 14 years. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Where might the ‘kosher vote’ play a role?

Britain’s Jewish community is relatively small numerically, limiting its electoral potency. However, Jewish voters are clustered in a handful of constituencies — many of them marginal. North London’s “bagel belt” includes Finchley and Golders Green — where around one in five voters, the highest concentration in the country, is Jewish — as well as neighboring Hendon and Chipping Barnet. All three seats are held by the Tories — and Labour has its eye on all of them.

Elsewhere in the capital, Harrow East, Hampstead and Kilburn, and Ilford North all have a sizable Jewish vote. Outside of London, Jewish voters could help affect the outcome in seats such as Hertsmere, the constituency represented by Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden; Bury South in the northwest of England; and East Renfrewshire, an affluent suburb of Glasgow that is home to Scotland’s largest Jewish community.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attends a Conservative general election campaign event in Stanmore, London, May 26, 2024. (Chris Ratcliffe, Pool Photo via AP)

An electoral barometer

Once solidly Labour (when the party won its first majority under Clement Attlee in the 1945 general election, districts 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. For a time, Jewish voters mirrored voting in the country as a whole. In the 1960s, Harold Wilson, the staunchly pro-Israel Labour prime minister, appealed to many Jews. As the country swung right in the 1970s, Jews backed Margaret Thatcher’s Tories.

Indeed, for over 30 years, Thatcher, a close ally of the community and strongly pro-Israel, represented Finchley in parliament. 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.

Former Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, center, joins pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel supporters preparing to march through central London, on May 18, 2024, at a demonstration mourning the 76th anniversary of Israel’s establishment and calling for an end to arms sales to Israel. (Photo by BENJAMIN CREMEL / AFP)

The Miliband-Corbyn years

Ironically, Jewish voters began to bolt from Labour under the party’s first Jewish leader, Ed Miliband, who took the helm when it lost office in 2010. The left-leaning Miliband proved electorally disastrous for Labour: in the 2015 general election, incumbent prime minister David Cameron, who had been forced to share power with the centrist Liberal Democrats, achieved the Conservatives’ first parliamentary majority since 1992 after heavily defeating Miliband. Miliband’s soft-left politics proved especially unattractive to many Jewish voters: on his watch, the party became strongly critical of Israel during the 2014 war with Hamas and, abandoning the balanced stance adopted by former Labour prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, voted to support the unilateral recognition of Palestine in an October 2014 parliamentary vote. 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 just 22%.

After Miliband quit the Labour leadership in the wake of his defeat, relations between the party and the Jewish community plunged to an all-time low following the election of Corbyn, a veteran anti-Israel activist. For the next four years, the party was roiled by a series of antisemitism scandals. Unsurprisingly, Jewish support for Labour plummeted further. A poll conducted on the eve of the 2017 general election showed 77% of Jews planned to back the Tories and only 13% Labour.

In this Monday, Sept. 27, 2010, file photo, Ed Miliband, left, the then newly-elected leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, embraces his brother David Miliband, right, following David’s speech on foreign policy during the party’s annual conference, in Manchester, England. (photo credit: AP/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Given former prime minister May’s wafer-thin margin of victory in 2017 — her government remained in power only with the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party — Jewish voters may have helped save the Tories from being prematurely ejected from office. Labour made big gains in London — the election was held in the wake of the Brexit referendum and the capital was heavily against the UK leaving the European Union. But the Tories managed to cling on in three critical “bagel belt” seats — Finchley and Golders Green, Hendon, and Chipping Barnet — albeit with slashed majorities.

By 2019, Jewish support for Labour had collapsed further. Ahead of the election, polls suggested just seven percent planned to vote for the party and nearly half said they would “seriously consider” emigrating if Corbyn got to Downing Street. Given the scale of the party’s defeat — Labour achieved its worst result since 1935 — Jewish antipathy to Corbyn played little direct impact on the outcome. However, the stench of antisemitism and extremism which hung over the Labour Party by the time of the election is believed to have alienated large numbers of non-Jewish voters.

Anti-Israel protesters wave flags and hold placards as they gather outside during a visit from Britain’s Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Rishi Sunak to Cannock College, in Cannock, central England on May 24, 2024, for a campaign event in the build-up to the UK general election on July 4. (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS / POOL / AFP)

A new Labour

Starmer’s first act on becoming Labour leader in April 2020 was to issue an apology to the Jewish community. He’s subsequently matched words with action: tougher disciplinary procedures, a drive to clear the huge backlog of antisemitism cases, and a sharp shift to the center have seen antisemites and hard-left Corbynites expelled or quitting the party. When Britain’s anti-racism watchdog, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) delivered a devastating verdict on the party in October 2020, Starmer, whose wife is Jewish, labeled it a “day of shame.”

Starmer has dramatically changed Labour’s attitude towards Israel — “restoring the Labour Party’s long and proud tradition of support for the Jewish state,” according to Labour Friends of Israel’s director — and spoken out strongly against anti-Zionist antisemitism and the “obsessive focus on the world’s sole Jewish state.”

Newly elected British Labour MP Chris Webb, right, with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer celebrating at Blackpool Cricket Club, England, May 3, 2024, after being declared winner in the Blackpool South by-election. (Peter Byrne/PA via AP)

Starmer’s no-tolerance attitude towards antisemitism has won praise from Jewish communal organizations. Dame Louise Ellman, a veteran Jewish Labour MP who quit the party over antisemitism, rejoined and has proved a vocal supporter of Starmer. The Labour leader used one of his few appointments to the House of Lords to place Ruth Smeeth, a youthful former Labour MP who, like Ellman, suffered a wave of antisemitic abuse, in the upper chamber. Nonetheless, one cloud hanging over Starmer’s reputation is the question ofwhy he chose to serve in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet. It’s a question some Jewish voters — and many undecided voters beyond the community — still want the Labour leader to answer.

Corbyn out in the cold

Corbyn’s response to the EHRC report in 2020 — he claimed the scale of antisemitism in the party had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media” — saw him unceremoniously kicked out of the parliamentary party. Starmer has been in no rush to let him back in and Corbyn has done nothing to assuage concerns about his far-left attitudes. In a television interview last November, for instance, he refused 15 times to call Hamas a terrorist group. With the election called, Corbyn has announced he will run as an independent in his Islington North constituency. It’s a heavily left-leaning seat in north London and — although he’ll have no party machine behind him — Corbyn will no doubt attract an army of pro-Palestinian, far-left activists to pound the pavements on his behalf. The conflict in Gaza will provide him with an ideal backdrop.

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak holds a meeting with university leaders and representatives from the Union of Jewish Students in Downing Street, London, on May 9, 2024, to speak about anti-Israel encampments at universities around the UK. (Carl Court/Pool via AP)

What impact will the Gaza war have?

Starmer came out strongly in support of Israel after October 7 and Labour has largely echoed the position of the government. Politically, the Labour leader’s line — which combines condemnation of Hamas and support for the hostages with calls for more humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza — and his decision not to turn the issue into a political football largely resonates with public opinion. But that doesn’t mean the issue hasn’t caused Starmer a series of political headaches. Muslim support for Labour has dropped sharply. That was evident in both May’s local elections and the victory of the hardline anti-Israel populist George Galloway in a special election in Rochdale, a seat where nearly 27% of voters are Muslim, in February. Formed earlier this year, the “pro-democracy and anti-genocide” Muslim Vote organization will target candidates supportive of Israel.

The local elections also suggested Starmer’s position might be hurting Labour in some urban liberal areas. The Green party — which is strongly critical of Israel and currently holds one seat in parliament — picked up support among disillusioned Muslim and left-wing voters. It performed strongly in the city of Bristol, in southwest England, where it also hopes to pick up a parliamentary seat from Labour on July 4. But the arrival of Corbynites in the Greens’ ranks isn’t an unqualified boon: allegations of antisemitism are now beginning to dog the party.

It’s not clear that Starmer’s support for Israel will damage Labour overall. Most Muslim voters live in constituencies where the party already has huge majorities. Polling indicates that while large numbers of Muslim voters consider the Israel-Palestine conflict a “very important” issue in deciding how they will cast their ballots at the next election, it ranks below other concerns — which are shared more widely by Britons as a whole — including the cost of living, the economy, and the National Health Service. Finally, support for Israel remains stronger among many older, more conservative voters who backed Brexit and live in the “red wall” constituencies — traditionally Labour but snatched from the party by the Tories in 2019 — which Starmer is relentlessly targeting.

An anti-Israel protester holds a placard stating ‘Sunak Supports Genocide’ as police stand guard outside during a visit from Britain’s Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Rishi Sunak to Cannock College, in Cannock, central England on May 24, 2024, for a campaign event in the build-up to the UK general election on July 4. (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS / POOL / AFP)

Labour stances on unilateral recognition and the ICC

Having backed unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state under Corbyn and Miliband, Labour has shifted gears under Starmer. In the wake of unilateral moves by Ireland, Norway and Spain last week, Labour reiterated Starmer’s position. However, the party’s shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, raised eyebrows when — in contrast to the UK government — he appeared to support the International Criminal Court’s decision to seek an arrest warrant for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

Bye-bye BDS bill

Both Labour and the Conservatives oppose the BDS movement, but they couldn’t agree on a parliamentary bill designed to stop public bodies, such as local authorities and universities, from bringing in their own boycotts of Israel. Sunak’s decision to call the election means the Economic Activity of Public Bodies Bill, which was slowly progressing through parliament, will now join a series of other government bills on the legislative scrapheap when parliament is dissolved.

High-profile Jewish casualties

A number of prominent Jewish Conservatives could prove vulnerable if the Tories haven’t closed the gap in the polls by election day. The highest-ranking Jewish member of the Cabinet, Defense Secretary Grant Shapps, is a formidable campaigner who helped lead the Tories to victory in 2015 as party chair. But his Welwyn Hatfield constituency — which he captured from Labour in 2005 — now looks vulnerable, especially after a strong performance by Labour in May’s local elections. Another Jewish member of the cabinet who might be in trouble is Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer. She is running in what polls suggest will be a three-way nailbiter in Ely and East Cambridgeshire in East Anglia.

And it’s goodbye to…

British MP Mike Freer. (Courtesy)

Some pro-Israel and Jewish stalwarts are leaving parliament at the election. Among them is Mike Freer, a Conservative justice minister, who is quitting Finchley and Golders Green following years of threats and intimidation, much of it arising from his stance on Middle East issues. Robert Halfon, a Jewish former education minister, was political director of Conservative Friends of Israel before entering parliament. Halfon took the Essex bellweather seat of Harlow from Labour in 2010 but he’s decided not to defend his 14,000 majority. One of Labour’s handful of Jewish MPs, the hugely respected Margaret Hodge, has decided to call it a day 30 years after winning the east London seat of Barking in a 1994 by-election. But Hodge, a staunch moderate who served as a minister in the last Labour government, is a top candidate to enter the House of Lords.

Polls indicate the ranks of Labour Jewish parliamentarians should swell after July 4. In both Hendon and Finchley and Golders Green, the party has picked two able and moderate Jewish candidates. If their marginal seats turn red, chances are Starmer will have pulled off a much-anticipated, but nonetheless remarkable, victory.

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and the author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

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