LONDON — For Britain’s battered Labour party, there will be a particularly cruel irony in the fact that the formal start to the country’s general election campaign in two weeks’ time will come almost 20 years to the day after Tony Blair’s historic victory on May 1, 1997.
Labour’s landslide win two decades ago turned the country’s political map red as scores of constituencies which had been solidly Conservative for decades fell into Blair’s lap. One of the most symbolic gains came in Finchley in northeast London — a seat which Margaret Thatcher had represented in parliament for over 30 years and where around 20 percent of voters — the highest concentration in the country — are Jewish. Blair’s victory in Finchley mirrored wins in a string of other seats with a comparatively sizeable Jewish presence, few of which are natural Labour territory.
With the opinion polls suggesting that Prime Minister Theresa May will inflict a crushing defeat on Labour when the country votes on June 8, it is probably safe to predict that Finchley and Golders Green will remain in Conservative hands.
As in 1997, though, the “Jewish vote” will prove an excellent barometer as to which party has captured the center ground on which Britain’s general elections are won and lost. Moreover, while the Jewish community’s relatively small size limits its electoral potency, its voters are nonetheless clustered in a handful of marginal seats: Hove, Hendon, Brent Central, Harrow East, Harrow West, Ilford North, Hornsey and Wood Green, Hampstead and Kilburn. And, then there are of course, Finchley and Golders Green, which are traditionally on the general election front line.
American Jews have remained, alongside African-Americans, one of the Democratic party’s most loyal constituencies. This historic party loyalty prompted essayist Milton Himmelfarb to quip that “Jews earn like Episcopalians, and vote like Puerto Ricans.” Britain’s Jews, however, have long since become detached from their traditional moorings on the political left.
Concentrated in the East End of London and similar inner-city parts of Leeds, Manchester and nearby Salford, Jewish immigrants to Britain in the early 20th century were, like other working-class voters, naturally drawn to the Labour party. When Labour won its first parliamentary majority under Clement Attlee in the 1945 general election, seats with large Jewish populations voted overwhelmingly for the party.
But, beneath the surface, British Jewry was already undergoing significant demographic shifts. As they joined the ranks of the middle-classes, Jews moved out of the inner-cities to the Tory-voting suburbs and old political allegiances began to loosen.
These socioeconomic factors were overlaid and complicated by Britain’s relationship with Israel. The Attlee government’s betrayal of the Zionist cause which Labour had hitherto steadfastly advocated, coupled with Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin’s notorious hostility to the young Jewish state, angered and offended many British Jews. So, too, did the party’s stance during the Suez crisis in 1956 when Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell compared Britain’s actions to someone helping “the burglar [Israel] shoot the householder [Egypt].”
But, in its greatest hour of need in October 1973, it was Labour who was to prove the Jewish state’s better friend, attacking Edward Heath’s government for imposing an arms embargo on both sides and urging solidarity with “democratic socialist” Israel.
A few months later, the country went to the polls. Where their votes counted, Jewish voters punished Conservative MPs who had backed the government’s stance and rewarded those who had rebelled against it. Indeed, Labour has provided three of Britain’s most pro-Israeli prime ministers of the past four decades: Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Nonetheless, Labour has too often forced Jews who might naturally vote for it to choose between their party and their support for Israel in a manner that the American Democratic party has never done.
The US “kosher vote” has remained steadfastly loyal, in part, because the Democratic party has never succumbed to the virulent hostility to Israel which became fashionable in some sections of the European left during the 1970s. That tide of anti-Zionism swept over Labour in the early 1980s when, in the wake of Thatcher’s election in 1979, the hard left attempted to seize control of the party.
Labour’s lurch to the left extended well beyond the arena of foreign policy in general and Israel in particular. Given the overwhelmingly middle-class nature of the Jewish electorate, the party’s newfound radicalism on economic and social policy would regardless have alienated many Jews who had previously voted for it it, as it did with millions of other Britons.
But difficulties for Labour in the community were compounded by the fact that virulent opposition to Israel was one of the hallmarks of the hard left, while attacks on the Jewish state became a mainstay of debates in many local parties.
Virulent opposition to Israel was one of the hallmarks of the hard left, while attacks on the Jewish state became a mainstay of debates in many local parties
The principal beneficiary of these developments was Thatcher. As polling by Prof. Geoffrey Alderman indicates, in northeast and northwest London, Jewish electoral behavior was significantly different from that of other voters in these areas — almost always, Jews were more likely to vote Conservative and less likely to vote Labour.
In 1987, as she headed towards a then-record three consecutive general election victories, Thatcher captured the votes of six out of 10 of Finchley’s Jews; a share six points higher than that of other middle-class professionals in the seat.
When Britain swung back to Labour 10 years later, however, constituencies with large Jewish populations fell to the party with greater than average swings.
Of course, Jewish voters do not vote on the single issue of Israel. Blair may, as one former aide put it, have purged his party of its “anti-Israelism,” but his commitment to education, emphasis on the values of community and reciprocal responsibility, and desire to rid Labour of its knee-jerk hostility to entrepreneurialism, all resonated with many Jews.
Similarly, Thatcher’s longstanding support for Israel did not alone explain why she was able to capture large swaths of the “Jewish vote.” Instead, her close relationship with then-Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits symbolized her deep respect for Jewish values and what she termed the “Jewish approach to life” along with the symmetries she detected between them and her own religious and political beliefs. Such was the affinity that in 1988 the pro-Conservative Sunday Telegraph admiringly declared that “Judaism has become the new creed of Thatcherite Britain.”
There is also nothing homogeneous about the “Jewish vote.” As research by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research showed shortly before the Conservatives’ return to government in 2010, while Jews leaned more towards the Tories than toward Labour, Jewish voters demonstrated 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.
Nonetheless, the period since Labour’s loss of office seven years ago has snapped many of the bonds between the party and Britain’s Jews. Ironically, the initial damage was done under Ed Miliband, the party’s first Jewish leader.
For much of the community, Miliband was a blank slate when he won the leadership in 2010. That was hardly surprising. His parents, wrote Miliband in 2012, “defined themselves not by their Jewishness but by their politics.” A polite but slightly uneasy relationship ensued.
That relationship, however, was put under severe strain by the events of the summer of 2014. Just weeks after returning from a visit to Israel and declaring his commitment to “Israel’s security and right to protect itself,” Miliband angrily denounced Operation Protective Edge.
It was less the condemnation itself and more its fiery nature, lack of nuance and empathy for Israeli civilians who found themselves under rocket attack that dismayed many Jews. It didn’t help that there was a strong suspicion that he was using the issue as a political football.
Worse, however, was yet to come: as anti-Semitic attacks in Britain doubled, Labour remained inexplicably silent for four months. Shortly after, Miliband burned his final bridges with many Jews, whipping his MPs to back a parliamentary vote, proposed by Labour backbencher Grahame Morris endorsing unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state. (In 2014, Morris compared the Israeli army to IS; he is now a member of Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet away on sick leave.)
Miliband thus casually cast aside the studded even-handedness of the Blair and Brown governments.
Some suspected that Miliband was weak, allowing a resurgent left to dictate his foreign policy. Others believed that the Labour leader was simply part of that section of the left for which the Palestinian struggle is of central importance. Either way, by the following summer’s general election, Labour’s support among Jews had plummeted.
Ahead of the 2015 elections, a poll by the Jewish Chronicle found 69% of Jews intended to vote Tory, with Labour trailing with only 22%. Reflecting the heightened tensions of the previous summer, the poll also found that 73% of Jewish voters said the parties’ approach towards Israel and the Middle East was “very” or “quite” important in determining how they would vote. On that issue, the Tory leader, David Cameron, led Miliband by 65% to 10%.
Miliband resigned the leadership shortly after suffering a heavy defeat in the general election. His legacy, however, continues to haunt the party — more than anyone else, it was Miliband who laid the groundwork for the election of Corbyn, a serial rebel and veteran anti-Israeli activist, to Labour’s leadership in September 2015.
Miliband provided the organizational foundations by changing the rules by which the party elects its leader, thereby throwing open its doors to hard left entrants. And by tolerating extreme anti-Israel rhetoric in the parliamentary party and indulging the left’s fantasies about why Labour had lost power in 2010 and how it should regain it, he provided the intellectual foundations, too.
Corbyn’s hostility to Israel is deeply entrenched. As Dave Rich wrote in his recent book, “The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism,” he came of age politically during the era of decolonization. Rich argued that to Corbyn’s generation of leftists, Zionism is “a racist, colonialist ideology, and Israel an illegitimate remnant of Western colonialism in the Middle East.”
Even before he won the leadership, Corbyn’s past description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends,” his links to a motley crew of extremists, anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers, and his willingness to campaign alongside those who question the Jewish state’s very right to existence damned him in the eyes of many Jews.
Little he has done since has changed those initial evaluations. Corbyn’s attempts to show he takes anti-Semitism in Labour’s ranks seriously have proved unconvincing. The credibility of a report he commissioned into the problem last year — which largely exonerated the party — was left in tatters when just weeks after its publication he awarded its author a peerage and then appointed her to his shadow Cabinet.
Earlier this month, Corbyn refused to join calls for the party to expel former London mayor Ken Livingstone over his comments that Hitler supported Zionism and that there had been “real collaboration” between Jews and Nazis before World War II.
Labour may not, then, have plumbed the depths of Jewish support. A poll last summer suggested just 8.5% of Jews would vote for the party. For the many Labour MPs who have a long history of fighting anti-Semitism and defending Israel, and for the many more left-leaning Jews who feel the Labour party no longer offers them a home, the next seven weeks may well prove uniquely challenging.