Jews and Labour: what next?

This post was originally commissioned by, and written for, Labour Vision

Labour-VisionSo, credit where credit is due.

Without doubt, the biggest impact of the general election was made by Jeremy Corbyn. His calmness under fire; his ability to inspire voters – especially young people, who previously hadn’t voted – with a positive message set the election on fire and delivered a set of results which were simply unimaginable when the election was called. Hope triumphed over despair.

I didn’t think the campaign would pan out this way. I didn’t think there were millions of hidden voters who could be inspired to come out and vote. I was sceptical about how much of a campaigning contribution Momentum would make. I was wrong on all three counts.

I stood in Hendon for three reasons. I really wanted to beat the hard Brexit-supporting absentee Tory MP. I also wanted to provide a platform for Barnet Labour to take the two extra council seats next May it needs to win control of the council. And, as vice-chair of the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), I wanted to restore the relationship between Labour and the Jewish community.

The first two objectives were definitely achieved. We slashed a 3,700 majority by more than 70%, down to 1,000. Our gained more votes than any other election, apart from when Labour first won the seat in 1997. It’s rare to come second with 46% of the vote.

Hendon is the second most Jewish seat in the country. I had spent plenty of time campaigning in the constituency over the last few years, particularly as a London Assembly candidate in 2016, but I was deliberate in my choice. One of my aims was to persuade Jewish voters that no-one had put me up to it; nor that I was some sort of sweetener to persuade Jews to back us.

Whilst Hendon’s 17% of the constituency is Jewish, around 14% is Muslim and there are plenty of Hindus as well as people of all faiths and none. I campaigned across the constituency, particularly in our key wards which had the greatest deprivation and need – and which were the most neglected and ignored by the incumbent MP. It’s fair to say I visited as many mosques and Friday prayers as I did synagogues. That’s what being a good candidate is all about.

But whilst the Jewish vote obviously isn’t the be-all and end-all in Hendon, an important factor is that Jewish people are very good at turning themselves out. So their 17% of the population is worth, at an estimate, more like 25% at the ballot box.

Now, I know lots of Jewish people voted for me, and were happy to vote for Labour and for Jeremy Corbyn. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there were many Jewish voters who told me that they would normally vote Labour, or that they wanted to vote Labour because of Brexit or whatever, but they had great difficulty voting for Jeremy. This was because of the problems with antisemitism in the party and his position on foreign policy.

Compared with the concerns other people had about Jeremy – like on Trident, or other security issues – Jews’ reservations were much deeper and both moral and existential, rather than simply utilitarian. Supporting terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah which are deeply antisemitic as well as wanting to wipe Israel off the map feels incredibly hostile and indefensible to Jews. It wasn’t just a case of ‘I’m not sure you’ve got quite the right attitude toward foreign policy here” or “You want to tax me a bit too much”.

From the get-go, there was comment in the community media asking how Jeremy Newmark and I could represent Labour, implying that we were somehow betraying our community. This was ridiculous hyperbole, of course, which often came from people with clear Tory sympathies. But some of that mud stuck – and the party had created the conditions for it be thrown.

And there was plenty of hostility and vitriol on the doorstep too. Those attacks hurt, but my skin is already tough enough. My problem was the impact it was having on my vote.

Looking across north London, this impact should be clear. There’s a clear correlation: the larger the Jewish population, the smaller the increase in Labour’s share of the vote – this especially holds in those seats were Labour was challenging.

So – what could, what should happen now to help bridge this gap if there is another election in a few months’ time?

Working with JLM and others, we have to intensify our efforts on antisemitism. There is unfinished business for the NEC, to consider afresh the ludicrously light punishment imposed on Ken Livingstone following his being found guilty on three counts of bringing the party into disrepute. This is a real litmus test for the community: he simply has to go.

There are other outstanding high-profile cases too, like that of Jackie Walker. As a bare minimum, these need to be resolved – they can’t just be swept under the carpet because we did so well in the election. Passing JLM’s rule change which I proposed at last year’s conference in Brighton this Autumn is essential too.

All outstanding recommendations from the Royall and Chakrabarti reports must be implemented. For our part, JLM will redouble our efforts to massively expand our training and education programme at all levels across the Party.

Jeremy can’t unsay the things he said in the past about the murderous terrorist organisations Hamas and Hezbollah being his friends. He can’t undo actions like laying a wreath at the grave of a PLO terrorist or addressing Al-Muhajiroun rallies.

But he can show real contrition, and indicate that – as a Prime Minister-in-waiting, rather than a campaigning opposition backbencher – he understands that such actions aren’t inappropriate; indeed, that they are inimical to achieving Labour’s clear aim of a two-state solution. And he should take up an invitation he received from our Israeli sister party in to visit Yad Veshem, the country’s national Holocaust memorial.

We know that our Leader can be pragmatic on policy. By backing NATO, pledging to renew Trident and promising an increase in police numbers by 10,000, he blunted attacks over his attitude towards national security. The tone he struck in the immediate aftermath of the horrendous events at London Bridge and Borough market were spot on – banishing any previous reservations he stated about shoot-to-kill. We need more of this pragmatism here.

He doesn’t have to pretend to be Israel’s greatest friend or step back from his solidarity with the Palestinian cause; but he does need to show that he will deal fairly with both sides as part of an international community seeking to bring lasting peace to the region.

Sadiq Khan has shown how to give an authentic Labour voice to, and win support from, all minority communities. Despite Labour’s poor reputation amongst many of London’s Jews, the London Mayor is probably their favourite politician. And there is a halo effect here – in diverse areas, negativity towards any community will be given short shrift by voters of all backgrounds. Zac Goldsmith found that to his cost with his crude targeting of Indian voters in last year’s Mayoral election.

Jeremy deserves the praise he is receiving for reviving Labour’s fortunes with the largest rise in vote share since Attlee’s landslide victory in 1945.

But as well as we did, it wasn’t quite well enough to form a government. There were four London seats which could have elected strong Labour MPs, but didn’t, due at least in part to Jewish voters’ reticence.

There were clearly many Jewish people voting Labour in Hendon, in Barnet, indeed, across the country. There was still good reason for them to. More Jews voted two to one for Remain. Jews were worried about school cuts and a crumbling NHS. Jews across London are getting by on benefits and hit by stagnant wages, the public sector pay cap and a lack of affordable housing. Many of them voted for Labour to fix these problems.

Let’s not forget that this is a community which traditionally were in the most part left-leaning, and which backed Labour strongly between 1997-2010. For me, Jewish values are progressive values. That’s why it is a tragedy that the chasm which exists between many Jews and Labour has been allowed to widen, rather than be repaired.

Whilst the north London seats with Jewish populations we didn’t win could have prevented Theresa May doing a deal with the repellent DUP, perhaps even forced another elections, it must be more than simply political expediency which drives this.

Labour has a moral obligation, in terms of its fundamental belief in equality, in promoting tolerance and fighting racism to deal with antisemitism. Given the role the JLM played in forming the party as one of its founding affiliates, it owes this much to Jewish members and supporters. Of course there’s antisemitism in other parties. But it’s been a real problem for Labour, and we need to stop denying this. Anyway, since when have we settled for being no worse than the Tories and the Lib Dems? I want us to be better than the Tories and Lib Dems.

At this election it’s clear that many Jewish people didn’t feel comfortable voting for Labour when they did in the past. Restoring the relationship between the community and the Party is the right thing to do both morally and politically. We must meet this challenge now, so never again does any minority community feel that they can’t vote for our party, irrespective of the strength of our policies or the content of our manifesto.