When we grew up in England of the 1960s and 1970s, the majority of the country’s Jews voted for the Labour Party. This was the party that represented Jewish values of welfare and social responsibility. It was also the party which stood up for minorities, ethnic groups and immigrants.
It was almost unheard of for members of the Jewish community to vote for the Conservatives, while smaller groups may have voted for the Liberal (now Liberal Democrat) Party because of their support for liberal values in the widest possible sense.
But if a recent poll of The Jewish Chronicle is to be believed, it appears that, for the first time in British political history, a majority of British Jews will vote for the Conservative Party of David Cameron in this week’s national elections, turning their backs on the first ever Jewish candidate to run on behalf of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the “Jewish question” was not an issue at all. The role of Jews in society was seen as being one of an immigrant group who, in the period of just over 70 years, had moved up the social, educational and economic ladder in a country which had been good to them, had enabled them to be equals, and who had proved their worth and become fully integrated within almost all sectors of society.
Neither was Israel an issue. If anything, the Labour Party was slightly more positive toward Israel at the time, but there really wasn’t much difference and it certainly was not an issue which was uppermost in the minds of the Jewish community when deciding how to vote.
In terms of numbers, there is not much significance to the “Jewish vote.” Apart from two to three constituencies in northwest London, Jews do not constitute a major part of the population. The entire Anglo Jewish community numbers little more than 250,000 people, but it is a community whose contribution to society as a whole, in almost aspect of life, is disproportionate as contrasted with its small size.
There used to be significantly more Jewish members of Parliament, reflecting the community attitude to public service and representing the needs of the wider community.
This too has changed in recent years as many of the immigrant and ethnic communities now have their own, British- educated political activists who have slowly replaced many of the former Jewish members of parliament in these areas.
The only other case of a Jewish politician leading his party into a general election campaign was that of Michael Howard in 2005. As leader of the Conservative Party he was successful in greatly increasing the Conservative representation in parliament but it was insufficient to wrest power away from the Labour Party of Tony Blair. Howard, who had a much stronger Jewish identity and attachment to the community than does Miliband, resigned after the election, as can be expected from whichever of the two leaders – Cameron or Miliband – loses this week’s election.
There have been isolated cases of blatant anti-Semitism aimed at Miliband by some politicians, notably among the right-wing anti-Europe party UKIP, but such utterances have quickly been distanced by the party leadership, who do not wish to be categorized as anti-Semitic. Surprisingly, UKIP has some Jewish members and candidates competing in this week’s election on an anti-EU and anti-immigration platform.
They argue that the party should not be seen in the classic mold of right-wing parties, who are traditionally against all ethnic groups including the Jews. These candidates are either naïve (at best) or politically self-seeking (at the worst).
Because of the single-member plurality constituency system which is in operation in the UK, UKIP are unlikely to gain many, if any, seats, but they could take enough votes away from the Conservative Party candidates in some of the constituencies to shift the majority in the favor of the Labour Party. This could ostensibly compensate the party for the expected loss of Labour-held constituencies in Scotland to the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP).
If there are voters in the UK who will not vote for Miliband because he is Jewish, they are keeping it quiet. But ironically there are many members of the Jewish community who are not voting for him for precisely that reason. If, and when, things were to get bad and unpopular economic decisions have to be made, they prefer that it not be a Jew who is the prime minister to take these decisions and who will then be the target of all the criticism and underhand remarks about his ethnic origins.
But the main reason for the apparent shift of the Jewish vote to Cameron in even greater numbers than before is the perception of Cameron as a strongly pro-Israel prime minister. Miliband is associated with a more critical position regarding Israel, a position which is now common among left-wing parties throughout Europe, and he has recently made strong statements concerning Israel’s policies in the West Bank and vis a vis the Palestinians, while Cameron has remained silent.
Ever since the days of Harold Wilson in the 1960s, all British prime ministers, both Labour and Conservative, have displayed positive attitudes toward Israel, even when this has sometimes conflicted with the policies of the Foreign Office. It was true of Wilson, Callaghan, Blair and Brown in the Labour Party, as well as Thatcher, Major and Cameron in the Conservative Party. It would indeed be ironic if the first Jewish prime minister were to be the most critical of Israel. This may be interpreted by many in the community as an attempt on Miliband’s part to bend over backwards to show that he does not display double or blind loyalties to the Jewish state.
In economic terms, the Jewish community is firmly established. Their current economic status is probably better represented by the laissez faire policies of the Conservatives than the welfare policies of the Labour Party, although the latter remain strongly ingrained as part of the Jewish involvement in society-wide charity and welfare projects. The fact that they are also a community which look after their own poor and needy without automatically expecting others to do the job on their behalf is also an ethos which is promoted by the Conservative Party.
Finally, but by no means least, the large immigration of Muslim groups during the past two decades, many of whom do not necessarily seek to integrate into wider British society through the acceptance of Western democratic norms, along with the fact that these groups are in many cases radically anti-Israel, have distanced the Jewish community from a carte blanche support of all other ethnic and national minorities. The Jewish immigrant experience is vastly different to that of the recent Muslim experience, most of whom are represented in Labour-dominated constituencies.
The Jewish experience is more similar to that of the Asian immigrant groups who arrived during the 1950s and 1960s and who have expended great efforts in education, integration into society and advancing up the ladder of social and educational mobility. Many of these groups have also started voting for the Conservative Party and in this respect there is a great deal of similarity between the two groups.
Polls are notoriously suspect and it remains to be seen whether the Jewish community (who are expected to display high participation levels) will indeed transfer their vote in the way that has been indicated. Even if they do, it will have minimal impact on the overall result of the election, but will say a lot about the changes in Anglo-Jewish society and the way in which the specific issues on the table, which are of concern to the community, have changed over time.The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.