What Israel’s Left Can Learn From the British Left’s Election Failure

'You can’t get elected if you’re preaching to your own and your story is poor me,'' says former British Peace Now head.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband speaks during a press conference in central London on May 8, 2015.Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

LONDON – The main left-wing parties of Israel and Britain have one major thing in common – neither of them are very leftist. This sets them apart from the left in most European and Latin American democracies, where the left is much more radical, and from the United States, where the left plays no role in mainstream politics.

The labor parties in Britain and Israel, though, try to combine a few relics of socialism, social-democratic policies and a generally more compassionate attitude with a loyalty, sometimes begrudging, to the establishment. In Britain this means not challenging the basic fundamentals of the capitalist order or changing the traditions that underlie the political system, in which the monarchy and other traditional power bases continue to play a central role.

In Israel, Labor also accepts the capitalist structure and does not seek to change the Zionist values that underpin the Jewish state. And despite its ideological opposition to the continued occupation of the Palestinians in the West Bank, it is committed to playing “by the rules” in its attempts to end it.

Which is the reason both parties can’t seem to understand why they have failed to win over their countrymen and women – they are both so reasonable, how can ordinary decent Britons and Israelis not have voted for them?

Both parties are now in danger of being gripped by the same argument –- did they lose because they weren’t left-wing enough or because they were too left-wing? Smarter leaders in both parties, however, realize the real question is less about policy and more about communication, not in the shallow PR sense, but at the more crucial level of how a political party engages with the public. And while Israeli Laborites have had by now nearly seven weeks to contemplate the reasons for their failure, while their co-ideologues in the U.K. have had only three days, the British situation is much more transparent, without much of the religious and historical baggage that clutters Israeli politics.

The British Labour Party in the aftermath of the election defeat is already bogging itself down in its periodic battles between the leftist and centrist wings, but the real issue is who will lead the party in the post-Miliband era. The immediate lesson from his disastrous showing is that Labour needs a leader with charisma, which is of course one of the conclusions that Israeli leftists have reached after Isaac Herzog’s failure, but will that be enough?

Ed Miliband’s awkward campaign is easy to attack, but the unlikeliness of his candidacy is so obvious that it obscures the deeper flaw in his strategy. Miliband believed that with Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system and the rising popularity of radical parties – the Greens on the left and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) on right, it would be enough for Labour to win 35 percent of the vote, almost solely its core constituency, to win the election. This strategy allowed him to drift to the left and concentrate on Labour’s traditional strongholds, some of which Labour held, like London and working-class areas in northern England, but in others where the ground rules have changed, like Scotland, especially, they were whipped.

One of the most important statistics to emerge from this election is that in 120 constituencies across England and Wales, UKIP, the only party that is currently talking to the white working-class – even if they are doing that by whipping up a frenzy of xenophobia against immigrants – came second, and this mainly happened in Labour seats.

Some in Labour have tried to portray the party’s success in liberal and multicultural London as a harbinger of good things to come, when the rest of the country will be like London. This is very reminiscent of Israeli leftists saying that they have nothing to be ashamed of doing well in the last election only in the “Tel-Aviv bubble,” since the big city represents what is best about Israel. That might sound like a neat strategy, but it will take at least another couple of decades before it matches the map, and meanwhile other things could happen.

The enduring tragedy of the left in both Israel and Britain is their abiding belief that having the “right (i.e. left) policies” is sufficient to win elections, together with their disregard for actual voters who have to reconcile their ordinary lives, their hopes and aspirations, with party manifestos. In both countries, Labor has only ever won in the last 40 years with leaders who beat their opponents by sacrificing ideology for security. In Britain it meant the dashing showmen Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, in Israel it took the generals Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. Sure, there was something phony about their appeal and they certainly sold illusions, but those are what win elections.

The left, the world over, likes to portray the right wing as preying on tribal fears and loyalties while they represent the brotherhood of man and true equality. The truth is that ideology also creates a tribe that is often as exclusive as any family or gated community. Miliband, who grew up in a Marxist household, is a deeply tribal politician, and his tribe is the ideological left. He could have probably been an extremely successful academic, preaching from an ivory tower, but he was the last man to lead Labour against David Cameron, who is essentially a non-ideological politician.

The right has less illusions about itself, which allows it to sell itself as the bearer of a truly meritocratic creed that can work for anyone prepared to work hard for their families. The left only succeeds when it overcomes its ideological barriers and convinces voters they don’t have to be true believers to succeed.

Paul Ussishkin, a former head of Peace Now in Britain who has been involved in progressive campaigns in both Israel and the U.K., is equally scathing of the left in the two countries. “Pathos is not the path to power,” he said this week, observing the defeat of the two camps he supports.

“You can’t get elected if you’re preaching to your own and your story is ‘poor me,’” Ussishkin continued. “The message should be, We stand for everybody in this society and not just our comfortable zone.”

And this is the key to any future success for the left in either country: It’s not about ideology, but about having a leader capable of taking the camp beyond the left’s comfort zones. Recognizing it has failed to do that must be the first step to victory.

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