In Campaign’s Final Days, British Jews Lament the ‘Hold Your Nose Election’

Revelations about anti-Semitism keep plaguing the Labour Party, while a victory for the Conservatives contradicts most U.K. Jews' stance on Brexit

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn greeting a supporter at a campaign event in Bolton, northwest England, December 10, 2019.
Oli Scarff / AFP

LONDON — As the exceptionally fraught general election season enters its closing days, British Jews are finding it hard to approach Thursday’s vote with any enthusiasm.

With the Labour Party overshadowed by anti-Semitism scandals and hemorrhaging Jewish support, and a right-wing Conservative Party heading for a hard Brexit — while most U.K. Jews voted to stay in the European Union — Jewish voters see few good options.

Richard Ferrer, editor of the Jewish News newspaper, describes the community at large as “traditionally centrist” and says the eradication of the moderate middle ground in U.K. politics has been “terrifying.”

This will be a “hold your nose election,” he says: you hold your nose and vote. But between the issues of Brexit, the economy and anti-Semitism, he envisages only one outcome.

“I’ve done the maths and I can’t see how there can be anything but a Boris Johnson-led government. There are the 17.4 million people who voted for Brexit; they aren’t going to vote Labour or Lib Dem, only Tory,” he says, referring to the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives.

“No one in the security services, the army or police would vote for Corbyn, or people running small or large businesses, or the Jewish or Hindu community — or people like me who voted for [former Labour leaders Tony] Blair and [Gordon] Brown in the past. It all tallies up to a Tory majority.”

Ferrer says he will be voting Conservative, but notes that Johnson has also failed to impress on many issues. “Johnson is an untrustworthy bluffer, but he’s currently the best bet we’ve got,” Ferrer says.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson campaigning for the Conservative Party in Uttoxeter, England, December 10, 2019.
Ben Stansall / AFP

Zero joy

Johnson does not have an encouraging record on racism either. During his years as a journalist, he likened women wearing burkas to “letter boxes” and referred to African “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles.”

Meanwhile, he may have lied about his reasoning for proroguing, or suspending, parliament earlier this year, and in his private life he has famously refused to clarify how many children he has.

“It looks as if we are going to win one victory on Thursday: It looks like  Jeremy Corbyn won’t become prime minister. But there is zero joy in this victory. Nothing. Just misery,” says David Hirsh, a British academic and expert on anti-Semitism who has made no secret of his intention to vote for the Liberal Democrats. “Boris Johnson is not better than Corbyn; he is part of the same populist political culture.”

Josh Garfield, Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Braintree (northeast of London), acknowledges that this election has been characterized by public ambivalence at best and downright disgust at worst.

“I’ve never heard so many undecideds in any election campaign I’ve ever been involved in,” he says. “People on the doorstep are telling me that they don’t want any part of it.”

For the Jewish community, this has been amplified many times over.

“The choice for most Jewish people in this election has been depressing — a choice between two populist movements,” Garfield notes. “They are faced with a hard-Brexit-supporting right-wing Conservative party which has purged all its moderates, or a Labour Party led by someone who strikes fear into many Jewish people’s hearts. It’s not ideal.”

Although both parties have lurched to extremes, Britain’s political system often leaves voters with a binary choice, he adds, noting that Braintree has been “a seat that’s only ever been held by the Conservatives or Labour.”

In the last days of the race, the Labour Party has tried to keep the emphasis on the danger it argues faces the National Health Service if the Conservatives win. The party has been helped in this by Johnson’s performance when a reporter confronted him with a photo of a 4-year-old boy lying on a hospital floor awaiting treatment for suspected pneumonia. The prime minister initially refused to look at the picture and then put the reporter’s phone in his pocket.

‘A welcoming refuge for anti-Semites’

But Labour, too, is having its problems as further revelations about anti-Semitism have tumbled in. Last week, there was the leak of damning testimony from the Jewish Labour Movement to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into anti-Semitism in the party.

According to 70 testimonies from current or former Labour Party members, responsibility lies with the party’s leader for “making the party a welcoming refuge for anti-Semites.”

The Sunday Times this week featured other leaked documents that appeared to contradict Labour’s claims that all anti-Semitism complaints had been dealt with. The paper revealed that some cases were still pending after months or even years. In one case, it took 10 months to expel a party member who called for the “complete extinction of all Jews.”

And Sunday saw around 3,000 people gather in another protest against anti-Semitism in Parliament Square, in what have become semi-regular occurrences.

Although Labour is likely to pay a price for its inaction on anti-Semitism, many people in the Jewish community have been bruised by what they feel has been a lack of solidarity among the wider population.

Polls show that 87 percent of U.K. Jews think Corbyn is anti-Semitic, but the number among the overall population is 39 percent.

“The Jewish community is starting to really wonder about the soul of Britain. As the whole sorry affair of anti-Semitism has been going on, we thought that eventually Corbyn and his questionable past and relationships and complete lack of fitness for high office would become obvious,” Ferrer says.

“Instead, people make excuses: ‘There aren’t enough beds in the NHS, maybe some industries should be nationalized, we want free broadband.’ So they turn a blind eye to anti-Semitism. This is especially the case outside the big cities, where many people have never met any Jews.”

As Hirsh puts it, with many voters believing they have no good choices, the stage has been set for anti-Semitism to continue to grow across the political spectrum.

“Left anti-Semitism is not defeated; it is stronger and it will continue to be a threat to Jews and to democracy,” he says, adding that an equally strong trend on the other side means that the populist right sees its enemies as “the cosmopolitans, the metropolitan elite, the educated liberals, finance capital and the people of nowhere. Anybody who knows anything about anti-Semitism should worry about this.”