Will Labour pay an electoral price for its anti-Semitism crisis?

As a weary Britain heads to the polls, relations between Labour and the Jewish community have reached a new low. 

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As a weary Britain heads to the polls, relations between Labour and the Jewish community might have plumbed to their lowest depths yet. The Jewish Labour Movement, officially affiliated with the party since 1920, said it would only be campaigning for a handful of “exceptional candidates” like Ruth Smeeth, its parliamentary chair. In an unprecedented letter, Maidenhead rabbi Jonathan Romain urged congregants to vote tactically against Labour because party leader Jeremy Corbyn “would pose a danger to Jewish life as we know it.” 

On the same week the election was announced, the pages of three Jewish newspapers were unanimous in their message. As the Jewish News put it, “It’s the moment we’ve hoped for and dreaded in equal measure: the end of Corbyn’s Labour or dawn of Corbyn’s Britain.”

Last week, the Jewish Chronicle took the unusual step of appealing to “all our fellow British citizens” in a front page reiterating Jewish fears sparked by Labour's enduring anti-Semitism crisis. Citing recent polling data that 87 per cent of Jews consider the Labour leader an anti-Semite, and that 47 per cent “would seriously consider” emigrating if he wins, the paper urged those outside the Jewish community: “We believe that the overwhelming majority of British people abhor racism. We ask only that, when you cast your vote, you act on that.”

In the shadow of an Equality and Human Rights Commission investigation into allegations of anti-Semitism in the party, Dame Louise Ellman's resignation and controversies around the alleged anti-Semitism of some Labour candidates, these recent incidents illustrate the impossible position of many Jews. Like their fellow British citizens, Jewish voters face a tough political choice on 12 December – one that anti-Semitism only exacerbates. 

Recent polling shows a mixed picture. A recent Jewish Chronicle survey indicated 78 per cent of Jews think even a no-deal Brexit would be preferable to Corbyn as prime minister (in 2016, Jews voted 2-1 to remain in the EU). According to the survey, only seven per cent said they would vote Labour at the next election, with or without Corbyn; 42 per cent said they would vote for the party with a new leader.

But a more recent poll published by the Jewish News suggested that Brexit is a bigger deciding factor for Jewish voters. Thirty one per cent of respondents cited Brexit as the single most important issue in deciding who to support. Anti-Semitism came second, with 19 per cent of respondents saying it would be the most important factor. Seven per cent referred to opposing Corbyn and Labour as their main motivation, which further complicates the picture.

Clearly, Jewish voters also have concerns beyond anti-Semitism. A combination of Labour's fuzzy Brexit position, together with the party's leftward shift on economic policy, and discomfort over what is seen as tolerance to prejudice against Jews, could prove deciding factors at the polling booth. And for some Jews, Labour is still a lesser evil than Conservative rule. Allegations of racism and prejudice against Muslims hardly make the Conservative party more appealing. Some Jewish voters desperately want to cast their ballot for Labour, but can't bring themselves to do so with Corbyn at the helm.

Even if this election sees yet more Jewish voters abandon the party, given the size of the Jewish minority – Jewish voters make up only 0.5 per cent of the population – it would be unlikely to significantly influence election results. There are only a handful of constituencies where Jews make up more than 10 per cent of the electorate: Finchley and Golders Green, Hendon, Hertsmere, Hackney North, Stoke Newington and Bury South.

Among them, Finchley and Golders Green has the largest Jewish community. It has been held by the Conservatives since 2010; in the 2017 election, MP Mike Freer won with a majority of only 1,657 votes. Still, Labour has very little chance of regaining the seat. Luciana Berger, who left the party earlier this year after she was subject to anti-Semitic abuse, is running in Finchley as a Liberal Democrat candidate and currently has an eight-point lead. 

Hendon is also unlikely to turn red. Conservative MP Matthew Offord has a majority of 1,072. Chipping Barnet, where Jews comprise just under seven per cent of the population, is another Conservative seat, albeit with a narrower margin; MP Theresa Villiers won the seat by a slim 353 votes in 2017. 

The Jewish Chronicle's appeal beyond its readership is understandable. It reflects the views of a number of prominent Jewish voices. In their eyes, a vote for Labour is a vote to tolerate racism.

Labour's response has done little to assuage these concerns. Jeremy Corbyn recently told the BBC that "anti-Semitism is a poison and an evil in our society. Any form of racism is a poison and an evil in our society. I have spent my whole life fighting against racism... I want every community to feel safe and supported in this country." He added that there are many Jews "who are members of the Labour party, supporters of the Labour party, work with the Labour party, and they do not share the views that have been put forward on the front page of the Jewish Chronicle."

Diane Abbott, meanwhile, was recently criticised for saying on Radio 4 that the sizeable Jewish community in her constituency, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, do not share the wider community’s concerns about anti-Semitism in the party. In the wake of the Jewish Chronicle front page, John McDonnell insisted the party's response to anti-Semitism had been "rapid and ruthless". His claims were met with indignation. Luciana Berger tweeted: "This is sickening on so many levels. How many lies in 1 answer: * rapid - lie * ruthless - lie * done everything we’ve been asked to - lie. In the last week alone you’ve selected candidates who have engaged in antisemitic behaviour. and you are being investigated by the @EHRC."

At this stage words will do little to calm the fears of many Jews. One of the most tragic stories of this election is that a minority in contemporary Britain feels disenfranchised from the main opposition party. Jews are not alone in feeling politically homeless. But the political homelessness of British Jews is made far lonelier by Labour's anti-Semitism crisis.

Alona Ferber is Special Projects Editor at the New Statesman.