Britain's Jewish Vote

Will the "Jewish vote" have an impact on the results of the May 6 elections?

brit debate 311 (photo credit: Stefan Rousseau/ AP)
brit debate 311
(photo credit: Stefan Rousseau/ AP)
The leader the United Kingdom selects in the upcoming elections will have a major impact not only on domestic but on global affairs.
But beyond the issues riveting British and international observers to one of the most interesting election campaigns in memory, Jews are asking two additional questions: Does the Jewish vote matter? Do Jewish issues matter?
Ever since the first televised public debate between the three contenders for prime minister aired in mid-April, when Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg seemed to jump off the screen, as if he were the only candidate broadcast in 3D, a sense of “anything can happen” seems to have infected the media and the public, with Obama-esque tropes of change and “yes, we can” possibility in the air.
The British general election, set for May 6, will decide which party (or coalition of parties) forms the next government. In addition to the contest for prime minister – between Labor incumbent Gordon Brown, Conservative Party head David Cameron and Clegg, 650 seats in the UK Parliament’s House of Commons are also up for grabs.
Normally the British voting system is simple. Since the UK uses a “first past the post system,” to become an MP a candidate simply has to win more votes than any rival in their constituency, and not a majority of votes cast. If any party wins a majority of seats, the Queen invites its leader to become the next prime minister and form the government. But with the perennially third-ranked Lib Dems playing a “wild card” role and prospects of an Israeli-style hung parliament or coalition-jockeying, the possible results are so complicated that one newspaper analyst weighed no fewer than five possible scenarios that could play out the day after all the votes are cast.
There are 10 constituencies whose Jewish populations are large enough to have a measurable impact on voting results. Seven are currently held by Labor and three by Conservatives. But in two tightly contested Labor-Tory races in the boroughs of Harrow East and Hendon, the prize could go to the candidate who wins as little as 3.0 or 3.8 percent more than his rivals. In such a closely contested and unpredictable national election where every parliamentary seat counts more than ever, the “Jewish vote” could swing this election.
Which raises the question: How do British Jews vote? Along the same lines as the general public, with the domestic issues of jobs, unemployment, pensions, taxes, national health, banking and university places at the forefront, or out of sectarian concerns? Do issues regarding Israel and global Judaism play a role, or do British Jews reaffirm the “don’t-make-a-fuss” stereotype that has plagued them for years?
“British Jews have different issues from Israeli Jews,” says Professor Colin Shindler, author of “History of Modern Israel” and chair of Israeli studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. “They vote as citizens of their own country with a wide variety of concerns.”
And typically, their preferences do not coincide with Israeli preferences. This is true in most countries, Shindler notes.His favorite illustration comes from the 2004 American presidential elections, when, just months before the polls opened, a whopping 69 percent of Jews said they preferred Democrat Sen. John Kerry, while, if they could have voted, Israeli Jews would have preferred the Republican incumbent by a 2-1 margin.
“I live in the Borough of Barnet,” he continues – an area containing Hendon, where one of the most closely contested seats could influence the national election. “And even here, people don’t vote strictly according to their Jewish preferences. They vote according to their socioeconomic status.”
Prof. Geoffrey Alderman, the first analyst to quantify British Jewry’s voting patterns in his path-breaking study, “The Jewish Community in British Politics,” published in 1983, concurs. Alderman observed that Jews in poor areas tend to vote for Labor, while more well-to-do Conservatives vote with their pocketbook.
This isn’t to say that British Jews do not have issues, such as Israel’s deligitimization in the media and on the world stage, high on their priority lists. The British-led boycott movement, UK-Israel diplomatic tensions stemming from the alleged use by Israel of false British identities in the Dubai assassination of a Hamas terror leader, the rise in global anti-Semitism and British anti-Semitism, are all of concern to most British Jews, according to Community Security Trust, a Jewish watchdog group, as is the re-emergence of the far-right British National Party.
Yet, Shindler insists, “Their primary concerns are domestic. And the calculus can be quite complex.”
The candidates on Israel
The primacy of domestic issues may also have to do with the fact that in terms of their campaign positions, only a razor-thin distinction exists between the Labor and Conservative parties when it comes to support of Israel and the British Jewish community’s top foreign policy issues. Over the years, both Gordon Brown (Labor) and David Cameron (Conservative) have pledged their support of Israel, a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Israel’s need for secure and just borders and domestic security. And both have promised to make sure the government follows through on pledges to support antidotes to bigotry and anti-Semitism, such as the 2005 All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Anti-Semitism.
The one exception are the Liberal Democrats, whose record and reputation may have been permanently tainted by what is perceived to be an ongoing hostility to Israel by former party frontbencher Baroness Jenny Tonge. Tonge, who notoriously stated in public she sympathized with suicide bombers and referred to the “Israel lobby” as having its “financial grips” on Britain, was in February summarily sacked by Clegg as health spokesman in the Lords, after she called for an inquiry into allegations that Israeli soldiers were involved in organ trafficking in Haiti.
The British Jewish community was so stunned that in mid-April, when the latest polls showed the Conservatives leading with 35 percent of the vote, followed by Labor with 27 percent and the Lib Dems with a whopping 28 percent, the Board of Deputies held a special session in the heart of Clegg’s constituency in Sheffield with Lib Dem deputy leader in the House of Lords William Wallace. At that meeting members of the Jewish community let loose a salvo of concerns about the Lib Dem record on Israel. Wallace, who speaks on international affairs and defends the record of Liberal Democrats as “a critical friend of Israel,” could only seem to distance himself from Baroness Tonge by saying that “she lets her emotions run away with her” and is “mistaken” and that he “would defend her rather over-emotional approach to the rights of the Palestinians and her deep commitment to doing something about Gaza.”
His answers were regarded as offensive and insufficient. Several Deputies stormed out of the meeting and Danny Handler, who leads the Board’s Israel committee, called the peer’s address “disgraceful” and a “shocking revelation of the Liberal Democratic attitudes to Israel.”
Although Israel never came up during the second televised debate on April 22, there was some discussion of foreign policy – a departure for a campaign so far dominated by the economy and a parliamentary expenses scandal. The parties clashed on European policy, with Cameron seeking to woo voters with pledges to restrict the influence of European Union legislation in the UK, and Brown and Clegg claiming a Conservative government would isolate Britain.
“Foreign policy is an issue,” says Hagai Segal, a lecturer in Middle Eastern affairs and terrorism at the London campus of New York University, because, unlike Clegg’s party, both the Conservatives and Labor voted to join the US-led war in Iraq – a decision that haunted Labor for years. A poll recently showed 72 percent of Britons think the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable.
Pressure on Israel - no need for concern?
What worries UK Jews and conservative analysts, however, is the prevailing notion that the Israel-Palestine issue is the quintessential “festering sore” of the Middle East, and that “once it is taken care of, all other issues will be resolved,” a classic left-liberal view that regularly seeps into foreign policy debates.
Thankfully, Segal says, the more radical version of that idea – that the reason British politicians fail to address the “Israel issue” as key to solving global terror and regional conflicts in the Mideast is the effectiveness of a controlling Jewish lobby – has not taken hold of mainstream parties, but it does appear to have captured the imagination of the left-liberal media.
“And the danger with that comes when the Israeli public, reading the press here and seeing arguments articulated which sometimes cross over the line from ‘Israel as an offending state’ to ‘Israel as a rogue or illegitimate state,’ believes these ideas reflect the opinions of the general public. In fact, they are far from the consensus in the Foreign Office or the broader public,” Segal continues.
According to Segal, “Israelis need to be careful believing their own negative press. There’s a significant segment of the British public that understands the terror threat Israel faces, and see parallels with threats and challenges faced by their own country. This was illustrated by the positive response of many in the British public to the Dubai operation, who expressed approval – that was not shared by many in the British media – for Israel’s perceived choice to take out a terrorist mastermind in a manner they feel their own government should, but never would, themselves have considered.” This is also the view of David Hirsh, a lecturer in sociology at Kings College and founding director of the “Engage” website. Hirsh, who carefully moderates “anti-Semitic discourse” in the academia-orientated forum which daily goes to battle against the intellectual delegitimization of Israel, notes that, ironically, the left-liberal elites whose ideas seem most prevalent during this election are also the most ineffective on a practical level.
“Those who are against Israel are outside of party politics,” said Hirsh. “They also tend not to vote because they think all the mainstream parties are in collusion anyway, so that it doesn’t matter whom you support. It is all run by the Jews... so why vote?’”
The Jewish vote as a tipping point
Also ironically, it is on the micro-regional level that both Jewish issues and Jewish votes may end up playing a national role, even while the Jews, who are heavily concentrated in London and Manchester, form no more than half of one percent of the UK population.
Alderman, who first began to systematically examine the role of the Jewish vote in British politics in the 1970s, found that Jewish voting habits did play a significant role at critical junctures. Historically, the Jewish electorate played a key role in the campaign to bring Lionel de Rothschild (1847-58) to the House of Commons down to the present when, he maintains, they were instrumental in making sure that London Mayor Ken Livingstone was not returned to office two years ago.
In the run-up to the May 6 election, two parliamentary contests could serve as tipping points and swing the national numbers to Labor or the Tories. In other circumstances North London Hendon Labor MP Andrew Dinsmore should have been able to retain his “safe seat.” He has impeccable Zionist credentials and has a long history of responsiveness to British Jewish concerns – a history that is being challenged by his party’s refusal to amend the “universal jurisdiction” law, which currently permits private citizens to apply for the arrest of prominent Israeli politicians who set foot on British soil. In response, Cameron has specifically said he would rescind the law. This issue together with Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s recent condemnation of Israel over the use of fake British passports in the Dubai affair have made some Jewish voters think the Tories might be a better option.
To add to Dinsmore’s woes, notes Alderman, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee is encouraging its supporters in Hendon to vote for anyone but him. So a curious combination of Jewish and Muslim votes for Matthew Offord, his Conservative challenger, could hand the seat to the Tories.
Moreover, it isn’t only in recognizably “Jewish” constituencies that Jewish votes count. Jewish voters might prove critical to outcomes in seats as far apart as “Jewish” Bury South (where Ivan Lewis, Miliband’s second-in-command, is facing a very strong challenge from Michelle Wiseman, chief executive of Manchester Jewish Community Care) and East Renfrewshire, Glasgow, in which the comparatively tiny Jewish community may be persuaded to save Jim Murphy, the Scottish secretary, who is a leading light in Labor Friends of Israel.
Even in the haredi-dominated constituency of Hackney, Labor MP DianneAbbot may face a challenge because of a recent Supreme Court case thatis expected to prevent all religious schools from excluding students onstrictly halakhic criteria of Jewishness, and because of thegovernment’s backing of the Equalities Act, which mandates sexeducation in schools and reinforces gay and lesbian civil rights toemployment.
Furthermore, the fact that all three candidates and parties have madepointed efforts to court a Jewish vote by addressing fundamental Jewishconcerns like government-funded faith schools, circumcision and ritualslaughter may mean that the British-Jewish community, sometimesobsessively self-conscious about its minority status, has come of age.
“The Jewish vote, in other words, is very much alive and well,” says Alderman.
This article appeared in the">May edition of