British Jews Set to Abandon Labour Party as UK Voters Head to Polls for General Election
As Britons head to the voting booths for Thursday’s parliamentary elections following a bitter campaign between incumbent Prime Minister Theresa May and her Labour Party challenger Jeremy Corbyn, one of the few probable outcomes at this stage concerns the Jewish vote — which is set to favor the ruling Conservatives by an overwhelming majority.
Historically, most Jews have tended to vote for the Labour Party — although the community has not been as consistently reliable with Labour as American Jews have been with the Democratic Party. But the collapse in Labour’s support among British Jews — polls suggest that the party will pick up no more than 15 percent of the community’s total vote — is largely down to the antisemitism scandals that have plagued the party since Corbyn was elected leader in 2015 after having spent the previous three decades as a marginal MP on Labour’s far-left flank.
Given that Jews constitute only 0.5 percent of the UK’s population, Prime Minister May and her colleagues can glean little comfort from their firm hold on the Jewish vote. Nationally, Corbyn has defied predictions that his support would collapse as the campaign proceeded. Even so, and despite several days of encouraging numbers for Labour strategists, a Guardian/ICM poll on the eve of the ballot predicted a decisive Conservative victory by 12 points.
Still, Corbyn’s habit over the last few weeks of continually rebounding has left many Jews concerned by the prospect of waking to a Labour victory on Friday morning.
“For many people in Britain, a Corbyn victory would mean that the fantasies which have been important to them at some point in their lives have finally come true,” David Hirsh, a professor of sociology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, told The Algemeiner. But even for Jews attracted by Corbyn’s anti-austerity platform, the party’s recent record on antisemitism within its own ranks remains a powerful brake. The minor suspensions handed to Labour activists promoting antisemitic material on social media, the ongoing refusal to expel former London Mayor Ken Livingstone for his false remarks about Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s “support” for Zionism and the party’s whitewashing of its antisemitism problem in an internal inquiry into the problem last year suggests an unprecedented climate of hostility towards Jews — particularly those who support Israel to any degree — in the party’s ranks.
“The last thing people want to think about when it comes to that fantasy perhaps coming true is antisemitism,” Hirsh said.
For large swathes of British voters, the twin challenges of state-sponsored care for the elderly and state-funded higher education “take priority over Labour’s antisemitism scandal and over Corbyn’s solidarity with terror groups like Hamas, because these are financial issues which affect people directly and have an impact on their pockets,” Lesley Klaff — a senior law lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University — told The Algemeiner. Conservative policies in these areas had “reignited the traditional image of the Tories as ‘the nasty party’,” Klaff said. “In contrast, Corbyn is generally regarded as a ‘nice guy.’”
The party’s progressive stance on social policies is one important reason why, generally speaking, British Jews take little pleasure in abandoning Labour. Hirsh — a noted left-wing academic who was a driving force behind the formation of the ‘Engage’ campaign to oppose the academic boycott of Israel back in 2005 — reflected with some sadness about speaking to friends and colleagues “who just cannot believe that someone wouldn’t fall in behind the most radical and exciting Labour manifesto in living memory.”
Worries about Brexit — the UK’s forthcoming departure from the European Union — are also increasing doubts about May’s effectiveness, Hirsh said. “She’s promising to do something very radical, but she’s promising to do it in a sensible way, and something about that doesn’t sound right,” Hirsh said.
Klaff added that many Labour voters were sympathetic to Corbyn’s embrace of terrorist groups like Hamas, as well as his documented links to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) — touted by the Conservatives as one more example of the Labour leader’s unsuitability when it comes to national security.
“There are other voters, too, who simply do not care about antisemitism — probably because they do not care about Jews,” Klaff said. “These people are more concerned about Islamophobia, anti-black racism and anti-Roma racism, to the extent that they are concerned about any prejudice at all.” She added that the Labour’s 2016 antisemitism inquiry “effectively cleared the party of antisemitism and said there were just a few isolated ‘unhappy incidents.”
“Many hardcore Labour supporters and Corbyn fans believe that the antisemitism scandal was manufactured to smear Corbyn in order to undermine him and the Labour Party,” Klaff said.
Hirsh observed that the British response to the recent spate of Islamic State terrorist attacks in London and Manchester had not resulted in a national mood of “xenophobia” or widespread demands for tougher security measures.
“There’s a lovely quote from the philosopher Hannah Arendt,” Hirsh said. “She said, ‘There is a great tendency to explain away the intrinsically incredible by means of liberal rationalizations’ — I think people are happier believing that if others want to kill us, it’s because of something that we’ve done.”
Hirsh contrasted the political mood among British Jews now with the stories that his father had told him about Jewish support for the Labour Party in London’s East End during the 1950s. “My dad couldn’t remember hearing of a Jew who didn’t vote Labour,” he said. “There’s still a dilemma for some Jews who are pulled back to Labour because they care about what happens to the National Health Service,” as the UK’s publicly-funded healthcare is called.
“But many, many Jews understand Corbyn as someone who has been involved for thirty years with supporting people who want to murder Israelis,” Hirsh said.