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4 July 2017

Can Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour win back the Jewish vote?

The community was not on side even before anti-semitism accusations – but is that about to change?

By Thomas Zagoria

Britain’s Jews should fit nicely into the Labour tent. They are a religious minority, well-educated on average, more likely to live in London and other major cities, and voted decisively for Remain in the EU referendum.

Yet under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, a spate of anti-semitism scandals have meant the Labour Party has found it difficult to maintain the trust of much of the Jewish community – something that has been reflected in polling which has put the Conservatives far ahead among the UK’s Jews.

In electoral terms, Britain’s Jewish population of around 300,000 is unlikely to swing elections. Yet with a higher turnout among the Jewish community in Finchley and Golders Green, Hendon, Hampstead and Kilburn, and other marginal seats in London, the Jewish vote can be decisive.

Jews and the Labour Party have always had a volatile relationship. Despite leaning towards Labour in the immediate postwar decades, along with most other immigrant communities, much of the Jewish population swung behind Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, especially in her own seat of Finchley.

Many Jewish voters returned to Labour in the late 1990s, with polling generally showing Jews as evenly split between the two main parties. The last polls showing Labour just ahead among the Jewish community came right at the start of Ed Miliband’s leadership.

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A curious element of Jewish voting patterns is the fact that Jewish prospective prime ministers haven’t been been able to secure the community’s backing. Just as Michael Howard failed to substantially raise levels of Jewish Tory support, Ed Miliband’s Labour saw a collapse in the share of the Jewish vote, with massive gains for the Conservatives. Under Corbyn, relations have not improved.

Corbyn’s difficulty appealing to Jews at the ballot box must be put in context. A Survation poll before the election found only 13 per cent of Jews were planning to vote Labour in 2017, but two years earlier, in 2015, just 14 per cent said they were backing Miliband’s Labour before Corbyn’s ascent to the leadership. 

Yet anti-semitism does come up on the doorstep, and candidates such as Mike Katz – the vice chair of the Jewish Labour Movement who failed to take the Hendon seat by only around 1,000 votes – say that “compared with others’ reservations about Corbyn – like on Trident, or other security issues – Jewish concerns were much more moral and existential.”

Despite all this, the election defied expectations. For a brief moment on 8 June, the BBC’s exit poll predicted that Finchley and Golders Green, and Hendon, would both fall to Labour. And although neither did, in both seats there was a considerable swing against Tory MPs who were both regarded as friends of the Jewish community.

In Hampstead and Kilburn, a Labour-held marginal, Tulip Siddiq gained nearly 15 per cent in vote share and her parliamentary assistant (who also sits on the JLM’s executive) Jay Stoll reported that, though Corbyn’s Labour wasn’t gaining many Jewish voters, “we saw no discernible departure from Tulip’s body of support in the community as a result of the last two years.”

The Jewish vote was still holding Labour back in seats like Hendon – but, mirroring the rest of the country, younger Jews were more likely to support Labour.

Katz – who did not support Corbyn in either leadership contest – admits that he was “always very dismissive of the idea that there were going to be large untapped pools of voters who were going to come out of nowhere”, adding: “In effect that’s what happened, so I put my hands up there.”

Jewish Labour members also say Corbyn himself has risen in their esteem. Student Theo Anton says he’s become more comfortable with Corbyn’s leadership, as “he’s done way better than I ever thought he could” in a campaign which was “really good and energised, with a great manifesto”.

He also thought there was a “shy Labour” effect, where Labour supporters in the community kept quiet out of fear of condemnation from other Jews. Labour still has a long way to go among the Jewish community, but the result means Corbyn’s position at the helm of the party is safer than ever.

Labour campaigners feel this could go one of two ways. For centrist Jewish voters who backed their local Labour candidate on the assumption that Corbyn wouldn’t get into power, thinking there might be a change of leadership, Labour’s increasing electability could pose risks. There are large sections of the Jewish community who will not be brought around to Jeremy Corbyn, and they may now be lost to Labour.

Yet for others, the potential of a Corbyn government can only inspire the electorate. Rhea Wolfson, Labour’s candidate for Livingston who also saw a big swing to Labour, is a member of both the JLM and Momentum. She described the mood in the party as “incredibly exciting. It’s transformative, honestly. There is a sense of unity and purpose which I haven’t seen in the last year, maybe two”.

Having previously said that Corbyn and parts of the left need more “education” around these issues, she says now that “I personally have found Jeremy to be thoughtful and engaged on these issues in a way that I found not just comforting, but quite inspiring.”

Perhaps the absence of a direct threat on Corbyn’s leadership presents its own opportunities. Will we see unity in the party around the principles of tackling anti-semitism and building bridges with the Jewish community, in a less factional atmosphere? The Jewish Labour members I spoke to did agree on a few things – the leadership needs to match words with action.

For them, there need to be expulsions (Ken Livingstone was mentioned often) as well as more high-profile visits to synagogues and other community centres. Labour also need to arrive at a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which is widely accepted. These steps become more important, not less, after the undeniable electoral success of the Corbyn project and the positive response to Labour’s radical domestic agenda in its manifesto, which appear to put Corbyn closer to Number 10. Katz puts it with a hint of warning: “The Jewish community will be keeping an eagle eye on this, as will the JLM.”

But Labour’s newfound electability and internal calm brings with it opportunities to tackle anti-semitism in its ranks. As Stoll puts it, the Labour Party has the chance to prove that “we’re ready for government, and we’re going to show it by not having these issues holding us back”.

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