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20 May 2016

Antisemitism is rare in Britain, but Labour should still examine itself

New polling shows that political prejudice against Jews is neither widespread nor non-existent.

By Tim Bale

Another week, another bunch of stories about antisemitism in the Labour Party.  First off we had the announcement that Shami Chakrabarti’s inquiry would aim to report by the end of June.  Barely had we had time to digest that before we got a YouGov survey in the Times suggesting that a substantial proportion of the Party’s members and registered supporters seemed to think that (a) the whole thing was got up by the media and (b) Ken ‘did someone say Hitler?’ Livingstone didn’t deserve to be expelled. Hot on its heels came concerns expressed about the fact that Jan Royall’s inquiry into Oxford University Labour Club wasn’t going to be published in full.  And finally – well probably not finally, actually – it looks like a Labour MEP has been comparing Israel’s conduct in the Occupied Territories with, you’ve guessed it, the Nazis.

Understandably, the focus so far has been on the Party itself.  But what about those who simply support it and, indeed, the country as a whole?  Is there much evidence to suggest that Labour voters and Britain in general has a problem with Jews, at least when it comes to politics?

The answer would seem to be no – although things are far from perfect.  In fact, less than one in ten voters think that Jews have too much influence in Britain and two-thirds would be happy with a Jewish Prime Minister. But that does of course mean that a minority aren’t as open minded as they could or should be.

Those figures come from a survey of 1,694 adults, weighted and representative of all GB adults, carried out at the beginning of this month by YouGov for Queen Mary University of London’s School of Politics and International Relations.

More precisely, just seven per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that ‘Jews have too much influence in this country’, a drop of three percentage points since 2014 when we last asked the same question.

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Meanwhile, 65 per cent of voters said that a Jewish Prime Minister would be as acceptable as a member of any other faith – an increase of three percentage points since 2014. In party terms Lib Dem voters are the most likely (81 per cent) to agree with that statement, followed by Labour voters (74 per cent), Tory voters (67 per cent).  Only UKIP voters (51 per cent) were noticeably less likely to agree.

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The vast majority of respondents, 83 per cent, said that knowing a party leader was Jewish would make no difference to their voting intentions. Just six per cent of voters said it would make them less likely to vote for that party – although this rises to 13 per cent among UKIP voters.

These party differences may have something to do, at least in part, with familiarity.  Lib Dem voters are most likely (40 per cent) to say they have Jewish friends, acquaintances or work colleagues – followed by Labour voters (37 per cent), Tory voters (36 per cent), and UKIP voters (24 per cent).

Perhaps not surprisingly, age and to some extent social class difference make a difference: broadly speaking, younger people and ABC1 voters seem to be more open-minded.  But there also seems to be some regional variation in attitudes: Londoners seem a little less likely than voters living elsewhere in the UK to accept the idea of a British Jew becoming Prime Minister.

A majority, 57 per cent, of respondents living in the capital agreed that a Jewish Prime Minister would be as acceptable as a member of any other faith. But that was a lower proportion than elsewhere. Voters in the rest of southern England are the most accepting of the idea (69 per cent), followed by voters in the north (65 per cent), the Midlands and Wales (65 per cent), and Scotland (64 per cent).

More generally, there is some evidence that the recent controversy over antisemitism in the Labour Party may have heightened awareness of perceived discrimination. Asked about the level of prejudice against Jews in the UK, 29 per cent of all voters said there is ‘a great deal or a fair amount’ – an increase of five percentage points since 2014. While nearly one in two (48 per cent) feel that Jews face little or no discrimination, that figure is down six percentage points from when the same question was asked a year ago.

So voters reckon there is discrimination out there, but most of them don’t seem themselves to be swayed by prejudice, at least when it comes to politics. There are variations of course, and pockets of intolerance persist among some voters – particularly (but not exclusively) among those inclined to support UKIP – and some communities.

It will come as no surprise to hear an academic suggest we need more research to explain why this might be the case. But it is also worth what we’ve discovered from this survey being taken into account by those now charged looking into (and hopefully rooting out) antisemitism as it affects Labour.

Context isn’t everything but it matters. Political prejudice against Jews in Britain isn’t widespread but it hasn’t altogether gone away – another reason why a Party which aspires to lead the country should seize the opportunity to take a good look at itself.