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After antisemitism scandals, the U.K.’s Labour party regained the Jewish vote. What’s next?

Journalist Jonathan Freedland weighs in on what a remarkable landslide victory might mean for British Jews

Britain’s Labour party has regained control of the government, after 14 years in opposition. 

They’ve also won back the Jewish vote.

It’s a turnaround that few would have predicted in 2019, after the United Kingdom’s last general election saw just 11% of British Jews vote for Labour. The liberal-leaning party, which had traditionally won widespread Jewish support, had faced years of antisemitism accusations under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn between 2015 and 2020, and faced an astonishing erosion of trust from the Jewish community.

And yet, five years later, with Labour led by Sir Keir Starmer — a former barrister who is married to a Jewish woman and raising a Jewish family — early estimates suggested that close to half of British Jews voted Labour in Thursday’s elections.

For help parsing how Labour made such an extraordinary turnaround, the consequences of the vote for British Jews, and the role of the Israel-Hamas war in the race, I called Jonathan Freedland, a columnist for The Guardian who had been one of Corbyn’s most perceptive and vehement critics. He is also the co-host of the popular podcast Unholy: Two Jews on the News.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

What was the significance of this election for the U.K. Jewish community?

The big headline, I think, is that Labour itself is nothing to fear anymore, which it was five or six years ago. There was a front-page story in last week’s Jewish Chronicle which said, based on polling, that Jews were moving to Labour in very big numbers. All of it speaks to a comfort with Labour. 

Minutes after the polls closed, Labour announced a few nominations to the unelected House of Lords; one was Margaret Hodge, who famously confronted Jeremy Corbyn to his face. Here she is, given the biggest honor, which is a seat for life in the upper house. That tells you this is a different Labour party. 

The one dissenting note would be the success of a few independents — four or five candidates elected on demanding a tougher stance on Gaza. The fear is that Labour will toughen its stance on Gaza in response to these results. 

Starmer has taken a significant pro-Israel stance. How would you say the war factored into this election? What was most surprising about how that part of election discourse played out?

The margins are where it’s played a role. The Greens have gone from one seat to four, pushing the Gaza position very strongly

There’s clearly been a lot of upheaval over the war in the U.K. Do you think things might change in any way under the new government? If so, how?

You had, in the Conservatives, a government that was really keen to find culture war issues to run on. Over gender, all kinds of things. They turned this issue into one of those, where they tried to cast the people in the ceasefire marches as apologists for Hamas, calling the marches hate marches, and so on. They saw mileage in lining up on this issue, in saying we’re the protectors of the Jewish community. 

You won’t have Labour doing that as the government. That’s not the sort of business they’re in. I think that might take some heat out of it. Instead, they’ll be trying to thread the needle between support for the Jewish community — which has become definitional for the Keir Starmer project — and on the other hand they know many of their supporters are pro-Palestinian. They will not want to inflame this issue. The Tories had every incentive to inflame it. 

What are your hopes for what a Keir Starmer government will bring? What are your fears?

My hope: The country has been very poorly governed for 14 years, very polarized. The Tory government was incompetent, but also corroded standards in public life. Now you’ve got a government that is very much aiming for competence, for decency. 

The fear would be that politics is now unbelievably volatile in this country. Boris Johnson could win in a landslide four-and-a-half years ago; that landslide was completely overturned. The same could happen again. The economic situation is so perilous. 

You’ve written extensively about the complicated relationship Jews have had with the Labour Party over the last several years. What changes have you seen under Starmer’s leadership, and what remains to be done?

They thought that Corbyn and people around him were, at the very least, insensitive to Jewish concerns, or worse. There is now a new leadership of the party that has literally expelled Corbyn. It’s an extraordinary idea, that the former leader is no longer in the party. 

Many Jews feel this is a Labour party they can trust again. 

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