Yvette Cooper secured the nomination of Jewish Labour. Photo: Getty Images
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There is still work to do to repair Labour's relationship with Britain's Jews

Last night's hustings were a vital step forward - but there is a lot of work to be done to restore Labour's relations with the community.

On Monday night at JW3, the Jewish Cultural Centre in North West London, Labour Leadership candidates pitched their vision to a part of the electorate that largely abandoned it in May. Not a group usually found to believe in second comings, the Jewish community was always going to be a tough gig for the leadership hopefuls trying to win back their votes. Tickets for this event had sold out in less than four hours (One Direction eat your heart out), and the desire to have grievances heard was evident from the very start.

For those concerned with Labour’s recent electoral (mis)fortunes, its dire performance in North West London was particularly striking. Hendon, Harrow East, Finchley and Golders Green – all seats with significant Jewish populations – bucked the London-wide trend and voted Conservative at the general election. Cited reasons range from the Party’s position on Israel, its inadequate response to a surge in antisemitism over the past year, and a lack of support for the former leader. Candidates were expected to deal with these issues in turn, and a tough 45-minute opening debate on Israel made sure there was little room for avoidance or obfuscation.
The questions submitted on Israel were so numerous that Jonathan Freedland, chair of proceedings, had to composite them in advance. It also became clear that questions would demand answers from Jeremy Corbyn. Fresh from his exchange on Channel 4 News, the audience was keen for clarity on his use of the word ‘friends’ in relation to Hamas. Further, he was questioned on his role with the Stop the War Coalition and whether he supported Al-Quds day, described by CST representatives as a ‘celebration of hatred’. It would be fair to say his answers did little to allay the concerns of an audience who place as much importance on the company politicians keep, as the intentions they may innocently state. Candidates too expressed their distaste for certain ‘friends’ being invited to the Westminster Terrace, with Burnham suggesting he would sanction Members for doing so should he be elected as Leader.
Despite imparting the commonly accepted platitudes urging  “honest dialogue” and “hard conversations” in resolving the Middle East conflict, Corbyn’s night will be remembered for his claim that the Balfour Declaration of 1917 was essentially pushed through by Jewish Cabinet members. The audible gasp from community leaders spoke volumes. It is for Jeremy Corbyn alone to explain why he thinks Jewish politicians of the day were able to leverage undue influence over their contemporaries in deciding this country’s foreign policy. I will not strive to explain this historically pernicious sentiment in this piece, nor anywhere else for that matter.
But this was not a one-man show. There was huge intrigue surrounding candidates’ views on a range of issues and the loudest cheer of the night came when an audience member dared to suggest asking a question on “something other than Israel”. The matter of child-benefits being limited to two children was a particular community focus and Cooper, Burnham and Corbyn were relatively united in opposition to the cap. Kendall stuck to her campaigning mantra i.e. the need to restore economic credibility, a view that received a mixed reception from those present. The Jewish community in this regard broadly reflects the position of the public at large in its belief that social progression can come both from government support, but also independent endeavour.

That said, there were divergent views on candidates’ performances following the event. In terms of “repairing the relationship”, it was suggested that Yvette Cooper carried herself most naturally, yet there was an evident fondness for Liz Kendall who seems a natural friend to a community that has felt so antagonized in the past year. Andy Burnham was acknowledged “for saying the right things”, with several big promises, including a visit to Israel surely to be remembered if he is elected. Corbyn’s foreign policy was always going to be a point of contention, but to his credit, many were taken by his calm demeanour when making his calls for domestic social justice.
Ultimately, there is still much work to be done if Labour is to win back the degree of support it saw from the Jewish community throughout the 1990s. Monday night was never going to provide closure on the residual issues from the Miliband era, but the display at JW3 was an important start. Whilst we do not vote as a homogenous block, the causes for angst were clear and whoever wins in September will have a real challenge in persuading Jewish citizens not to burn the fragile bridges that remain.

Jay Stoll works at the Jewish Leadership Council. He writes in a personal capacity.

 

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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