Labour’s Brand Issues with the Jewish Community

Labour has a ‘brand’ problem within the Jewish community, and particularly in London. London’s more radical political tradition, and the presence of many of the more headline-grabbing of leading left figures, coupled with the fact that the vast majority of British Jews live in a relatively small section of its north-west, has exacerbated a disconnect of personalities, rather than politics.

This, along with the perception that there is a tendency within our ranks to accept the understandable solidarity that many on the left have with Palestinian nationalism, and afford to other BAME communities, while not accommodating at least a basic understanding of the deep and visceral connection that Jews in Britain have, through shared history, language and family, with Israel, has put a consistent strain on the party’s relationship with Jewish voters.

There is no greater example of this in recent memory than the fallout of a discreet meeting between a group of Labour-supporting Jews and Ken Livingstone during the 2012 mayoral election. The meeting, designed as a sort of rapprochement, ended how no participant wanted it to.

The ‘rich Jew’ remark, which Ken was alleged to have made in the run-up to the 2012 mayoral election, was in fact a turn of phrase that neither left Ken’s lips nor appeared in the letter sent from concerned party members to the leadership, added to the other missteps along the campaign trail. More damaging to Labour was the perception that the party was unwilling to act when Ken sailed extremely close to the wind. The Jewish community were well used to Ken’s belligerent refusal to admit contrition for the Feingold affair, his affiliation with Press TV, the welcome embrace of Al-Qaradawi on his visit to City Hall. Most had given up trying to wrestle him away from his views on Israel that seemed to stem from the highly controversial Marxist Trotskyite Lenni Brenner, which he told across the pages of his autobiography.

However, to witness a mayoral candidate, who was asking to be elected as a mayor for all Londoners, simply deny his own words, with the party so quick to leap to his defence, enraged those at the meeting and reinforced perceptions rife within the community. Feelings had been allowed to fester, and it even took quite some time after the election for senior figures within the party to acknowledge publicly just how dejected we all felt.

The response from some in the party grassroots was telling, rubbing salt deep into the wound. Across the blogosphere, the authors of the letter were accused as scabs and traitors. The Jewish community was, in their eyes, orchestrator of a secret plot to aid and abet the Boris campaign.

As Jonathan Freedland’s article from the time confirmed, Ken had indeed crudely and clumsily made the argument that suggested that, as the Jewish community is relatively well-off, and relatively well-off people don’t vote Labour, he could hardly be forgiven for not putting in his all to win our vote.

An apology of sorts uncharacteristically followed in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle, but as Jewish voters headed to the polls, the damage had been done on just too many occasions.

Perhaps that is why, in Golders Green, Ken lost, polling 729 votes, compared to Andrew Dismore’s win with 1,480 votes.

Perhaps that is why, in Edgware, Ken lost, polling 767 votes, compared to Andrew Dismore’s win with 1,692 votes.

Perhaps that is why, in Hendon, Ken lost, polling 692 votes, compared to Andrew Dismore’s win with 1,718 votes.

In the London borough of Barnet, just over 16,000 people made a conscious choice to vote Labour for the London assembly, yet could not bring themselves to vote for our mayoral candidate. Many of those votes will have been the rejection of the controversial Brian Coleman, but in three of the most heavily Jewish-populated parts of the country, the result was less than surprising. It would have only taken 32,000 more votes for Labour have won the mayoralty.

Like pretty much every other immigrant community to this country, the accusation Ken made doesn’t stack up. Worse than that, it offended the very reasons that migrant communities continue to vote Labour in spite of their socioeconomic improvement.

The Jewish community has benefitted from many of the institutions like the NHS, social welfare, state schools and wider access to higher education, and an enfranchising economy, that transformed an impoverished community in the East End of London into a thriving, striving group of Britons. That’s exactly why Jewish people want to ensure that these opportunities are preserved for everyone.

It also does not take too much to see parallels between the shared story of migration and integration the Jewish community has experienced with the transformation of British society, class and voting behaviour that took place during the postwar consensus.

Aspiration politics are at the heart of what motivates the ‘hard-working family’. Some Jewish and non-Jewish men drive Ford Mondeos, and we know that of Worcester’s 50,000 women, around 150 of them are Jewish. It is the same challenge outlined in Southern Discomfort and the rationale behind Progress’ Campaign for a Labour Majority.

First, put a stop, once and for all, to the sectarian communal politics that has dominated some parts of Labour’s electoral strategy in London for a very long time. The electoral strategy that says you can build a coalition of definable blocks of voters. Talking in terms of Labour’s missing millions, Tory-switchers, the Lib Dem squeeze, or alternatively dividing people up by ethnicity and faith, is simply poor strategy and very poor taste.

While quite rightly, our community is particularly concerned with crime, in the form of tackling antisemitism, and religious freedoms, as the 2012 London Jewish Manifesto pointed out, many of the issues and concerns that face our community are shared with the rest of London and the country.

Jewish voters want decent schools for their children, while they might not worry too much about whether it is a local authority or a group of parents that run them. They want the NHS and the care system to empower the disproportionately ageing community to access the culturally specific services they need, rather than the ones the state monolithically provides. The community wants its young people to be able to afford to buy their own home, close to family, cultural and faith institutions. Don’t write off Jewish votes as if the Labour party has nothing to offer.

Second, party reform. Ed’s announcement that London will have a primary for the mayoral nomination is a fantastic opportunity for Jewish voters to genuinely feel they have a stake in Labour’s direction. The contest for the nomination in 2012 was no contest at all, and certainly not because Oona King wasn’t a stellar candidate. Jewish voters will be unforgiving of any candidate who wants to perpetuate the politics of old, or leaves it too late in the electoral cycle to start their conversation.

Third, when Ed launched One Nation Labour in 2012 it was incredibly noticeable that he struck a chord with many. From the acknowledgement that his British identity is informed by the fact that his family had not ‘sat under the same oak tree for the last five hundred years’, to his conviction that ‘we have a duty to leave the world a better place than we found it … [and that we] … cannot shrug our shoulders at injustice’, what the Jewish community heard were principles that we recognised as central to the identity Jews in Britain today, Tikkun Olam and Chesed.

Ralph Miliband’s story of migration to Britain to escape the Holocaust, integration into British society from his time learning English in Acton, to fighting for Britain in the second world war, right through seeing his sons get a university degree, both of whom would one day enter a Labour cabinet, is a story that the vast majority of British Jews recognise and understand as one not far from their own.

If One Nation Labour can demonstrate in the run-up to the next election that it can retain its aspirational offer at the heart of the Labour movement, as it develops our hard policy programme, at the same time banish the poor relations of the past as distant forgotten memories through party reform, Jewish voters can vote Labour, happy, and deliver both mandate and majority.

This article first appeared for Progress magazine