BOLTON, United Kingdom – The morning of Britain’s general election dawned dark and rainy. There’s a reason that this is the first time in 95 years that Britain is having an election in December. None of the parties want to campaign during the short freezing winter days.
But this was far from being a regular election. It was called by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a last-ditch attempt to gain a majority in parliament to pass his divorce agreement with the European Union, to which the rest of the parties are adamantly opposed. But while Brexit has been one of the most dominant issues of the campaign, it has been overshadowed to a degree by the personalities of the two main contenders. Not surprising, when according to the polls Johnson and his rival, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, are the country’s least popular political leaders in over four decades.
The outcome of the election will be decided in a handful of “marginal” constituencies across the country, where Labour and the Conservatives are close, and hope to steal seats from each other. For Johnson to win his majority, some of these new seats for his party will have to come in the area of northern England, nicknamed the “red wall,” where Labour has held sway for three generations, since the end of the Second World War.
Due to increasing gentrification in some of the suburbs of the main northern cities, and the support of many traditional Labour voters for Brexit, now being championed by Johnson, the Conservatives have been making inroads.
One such place is Bolton, a town just north of Manchester, where the two parties are in a close fight for at least two seats. As commuters rushed to work in the center of Bolton on election morning, most of them said they hadn’t had time yet to vote and quite a few were not even sure which party they would vote for. “I’ve always voted Labour. So have my parents,” said Lauren Yates, a pharmacist. “But I haven’t made my mind up this time and my parents have already voted this morning for the Conservatives. And I probably will as well. It’s just too ridiculous to vote Labour now under Corbyn. He’s nothing like what a prime minister should be.”
To push back on the personal criticism of Corbyn’s leadership and the Brexit issue, Labour has made the National Health Service (NHS) its main focus in the campaign, accusing the Conservatives of planning to privatize parts of the NHS and even sell them off to American insurance companies as part of a secret agreement with Donald Trump. While there is no real proof of this, it seems to have cut through with many voters.
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Colin Masterson, a bank clerk in Bolton, said he was voting Labour because of the NHS. “I had cancer at the age of 18 and spent three years in and out of hospitals. I need a government to focus on health.” He admits that he doesn’t believe Corbyn will come through on all his promises regarding the NHS. “There isn’t enough money for what he’s said he will do. And he’s a complex person who seems ridiculous in the media. But I’m voting for him because he is committed to the NHS. And the Conservatives aren’t.”
Half an hour’s drive south, in the heavily Jewish suburbs of Salford, Prestwich and Bury, near central Manchester, there are many who are not going to give their votes to Corbyn, whose party has been mired in anti-Semitic scandal since he won the leadership in 2015.
“Of course I voted Conservative. I don’t know a Jew who isn’t,” says Moti Cohen, a real-estate agent. “Everyone is terrified of Corbyn becoming prime minister.”
There are actually quite a few Jews who are not voting Conservative. Yaakov Silverstein, who manages one of the local kosher shops, says, “I’m not voting at all today. I hate to say it because I believe everyone should vote, but I can’t vote for either Corbyn or Johnson. They’re both clowns. And you need to vote for a leader.”
The Jewish voters living on the nearby streets know that their votes won’t change anything, as Broughton Park is part of the Blackley and Broughton constituency, which has been heavily Labour for many years, and that in the last election was won by the sitting Labour MP by nearly 20,000 votes. But the Jewish votes in nearby Bury South may well have an effect in that neighboring constituency, where Labour won last time by less than 6,000 votes and the MP, Ivan Lewis, himself Jewish, has left Labour over the anti-Semitism issue and is no longer running for parliament.
At a kosher shop in Broughton Park, Shmuli Brown, the Chabad emissary in Liverpool, is stocking up on food. “I don’t want to say who I voted for because I’m a chaplain at universities in Liverpool, but I’m from Riverside so you can guess.” Liverpool Riverside, was, until two months ago, the constituency represented in parliament by Louise Ellman, a veteran Jewish Labour member. Ellman announced that she was resigning from the party due to anti-Semitic harassment, as her neighboring Jewish MP, Luciana Berger, did a few months earlier.
“I can’t be identified politically in a place like Liverpool,” says Rabbi Brown. “As it is, me and my children attract a lot of attention on the streets, some of it hostile, by being visually identified as Orthodox Jews. Politics in Liverpool is so tribally left-wing that either you support Labour or you remain quiet.”