How far can Britain’s Labour party fall? That appears to remain the only open question as the general election – which seems certain to return Theresa May’s government to power with a vastly increased parliamentary majority – kicks off.
But if Labour’s condition across the country as a whole is critical — polls currently show it trailing the Conservatives by up to 25 points — among Britain’s Jews, it is near-terminal. The cause of this electoral malady is not hard to diagnose. In Jeremy Corbyn, the party has a leader who only 14 percent of voters believe would make the best Prime Minister, opposed to 47 percent who opt for May.
If Corbyn’s particular brand of hard left-wing ideology and political incompetence is off-putting to most Britons, it is especially poisonous to the country’s Jews. The incoming head of the Jewish Leadership Council warned last week that a Labour victory would see the election of “the first ever prime minister who is positively hostile … to the Jewish community”.
Until his election as the party’s leader in the wake of Labour’s defeat in 2015, Corbyn was a serial backbench rebel who stood at the epicenter of a string of far-left campaign groups, many of which, such as the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Stop the War Coalition, are virulently anti-Israel. Those activities stem from the fact that Corbyn hails from that section of the left for which, as his director of strategy and communications, Seamus Milne, once put it, Palestine is “the great international cause of our time.”
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The 2015 leadership election cast a particularly harsh light on Corbyn’s past. Revelations that he had described Hezbollah and Hamas as “friends” (discussion about which he found particularly irksome) symbolised a series of allegations about the unwholesome collection of Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites with whom Corbyn seemed to have had an unfortunate habit of consorting. Unsurprisingly, a poll during the campaign found 70 percent of Jews were concerned about the prospect of Corbyn winning.
Those fears have been amply justified by Corbyn’s performance as Labour leader. Despite being urged by some of his staff to reach out to the Jewish community, Corbyn has instead dug a deeper hole. His leadership has been marked by an ongoing row about anti-Semitism in the party, which culminated in the party’s failure last month to expel Ken Livingstone, the former London mayor who had suggested that Hitler supported Zionism.
Despite rote words of condemnation, Corbyn’s own actions have fanned the controversy. On some occasions, they have appeared bizarre: he attended a Labour Friends of Israel reception and managed to avoid saying the word “Israel”. On others, they have simply been offensive: at the launch of a report into anti-Semitism, Corbyn stood by while a Jewish Labour MP was harangued by one of his supporters and then went on to seemingly compare Israel to ISIL.
Corbyn’s apparent indifference to how Jews views Labour was, perhaps, most graphically illustrated when, pleading a busy schedule, he turned down an invitation to visit Yad Vashem from the leader of the Israeli Labor party. Harry Fletcher, a member of Corbyn’s inner circle who quit last year in despair, recently confirmed the widespread impression that the Labour leader does not understand the widespread anger and hurt in the Jewish community. “I think he just saw those offended as complainers,” wrote Fletcher.
Of course, Jews in Britain are neither homogeneous nor are their votes cast simply on the issue of Israel. However, much of the left fails to understand the deep connections between the Jewish state and Jewish identity. Indeed, even before Corbyn’s leadership, many naturally left-leaning Jews felt that the Labour party was forcing them to choose between their party and their support for Israel in a manner that the Democratic party has never demanded. Thus, a poll from the Jewish Chronicle on the eve of the last general election found that 69 percent of Jews intended to vote Conservative and only 22 percent Labour.
Perhaps reflecting the tensions produced by Labour’s fiery denunciations of Operation Protective Edge the previous summer, 73 per cent of Jews suggested that the parties’ approach towards Israel was “very” or “quite” important in determining their vote. On that issue, the then-Prime Minister, David Cameron, led Labour leader Ed Miliband (ironically, the party’s first Jewish leader) by 65 percent to 10 percent.
Corbyn’s leadership has further corroded Jewish support for Labour — last summer only 8.5 per cent of Jews said they would vote for the party — while his wider unpopularity threatens the re-election prospects of a number of prominent Jewish and pro-Israel Labour MPs.
Nonetheless, as it did in the 1980s, when Labour’s lurch to the left produced a series of victories for Margaret Thatcher, a heavy defeat on 8 June may herald the party’s slow climb back to electability and, with it, the process of rebuilding shattered Jewish trust in the party. The pressure on Corbyn to stand down will be immediate and the chances of parliamentarians putting a hard left candidate on the ballot paper from which the party will elect his successor are slim. As part of their efforts to return the party to the centre-ground, any likely new Labour leader will want to swiftly turn the page on Corbyn’s disastrous leadership. Reaching out to the Jewish community — as Tony Blair did so successfully two decades ago — will provide a clear signal of their determination to do so. While the electoral power of the “Jewish vote” is limited, the allegations of anti-Semitism which have roiled the party over the past year have dominated the headlines and helped tarnish Labour’s image.
The task will be formidable, but it is not impossible as the party’s popular mayor in London, Sadiq Khan, has demonstrated. Khan shamelessly courted Corbyn supporters during the primary elections two years ago, wooed hard left trade union leaders and accepted Livingstone’s endorsement. Upon winning the nomination, he performed a swift about-turn, vowing, “I won’t be another Ken Livingstone” in his efforts to woo Jewish voters. Khan has lived up to his campaign rhetoric: symbolically, his first public event after his election last May was to attend a Holocaust memorial event, where he warmly greeted the Chief Rabbi and newly appointed Israeli ambassador.
Corbyn, of course, carried far more baggage when he became Labour leader than Khan. His party now stumbles towards the general election, threatening to collapse under its accumulated weight.
Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress magazine and a former special adviser to the last Labour government. His book, “The Honorary Jew: How Britain’s Jews Influenced Margaret Thatcher And Her Beliefs” will be published this summer.