U.K. Election: Corbyn Represents Fork in the Road for Jews in Labour-stronghold Manchester

'Corbyn is a twat who believes in talking to terrorists,' one local tells Haaretz. But other members of the city's Jewish community have very different views

An Ultra-orthodox Jewish man cycles past a polling station sign in northeast London on June 8, 2017.
DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP

MANCHESTER – Polling stations opened throughout Britain at 7 A.M. on Thursday morning. But in most parts of the United Kingdom, it was hard to discern any special activity on Election Day – a normal working day for most Britons. Moreover, the contest is a foregone conclusion in 90 percent of constituencies, leading the parties to pour their resources into the small number of “marginals” where the election will be decided.

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The latest polls released Wednesday night indicated a small increase of the margin in favor of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party over the Labour Party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn. While the polling average in the last 24 hours was nearly 8 percent, up from around 6 percent, the different polling companies had the margin at anything from 13 percent to a single percentage point. May’s reelection is almost certain, but the majority she may have in the next parliament remains the great unknown.

In central Manchester, the deadly terror attack in which 22 people were killed three weeks ago cast a pall over the election campaign. On Thursday morning, it was hard to find even one person voting for the Tories. The great city of northern England, with its proud industrial heritage and working-class tradition, still remains a Labour stronghold. Only last month, the former Labour minister Andy Burnham, a rival of Corbyn’s, won the Greater Manchester mayoral election with a whopping 63 percent of the vote.

Tony Reesan, a former factory worker, tells Haaretz, “I’m voting Labour today without hesitation. I don’t particularly like Jeremy Corbyn, I think he’s a bit extreme. But I’m voting for the party because I know they will invest in the National Health Service and social services.” Rushing to catch his train at Piccadilly Station, Reesan added, “I was fired from my job under a Conservative government and I know they don’t care about people like me.”

Tom Adams, a civil servant in the transport sector, is also sure he’ll be voting Labour – and he likes Corbyn. “I feel that in these elections Labour has shown a fresh attitude of investing in society, so what’s not to like?” He accused the media of vilifying Corbyn. “The media have made him out like some devil, but I’ve seen that he’s much more moderate – and, unlike Theresa May, he’s willing to answer questions and doesn’t change his mind all the time,” says Adams. He adds that the terror attack actually made him more certain of voting for Corbyn’s Labour. “I grew up in Belfast and I saw the effect of terror on the community. Theresa May’s answer is to limit human rights, but that’s not the way,” asserts Adams.

Labour is hoping to energize younger voters, who the polls say overwhelmingly support Corbyn. But it’s still not clear whether the traditionally low turnout among voters under 30 will change this time. Rhea, who works at a record store in central Manchester, says she will be voting for the first time. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m voting for Jeremy Corbyn before I’m voting for Labour,” she makes clear. “He’s open to people – unlike May, who acts like a robot.”

Other young voters, however, aren’t about to make it to the polling booths. James, who works in a shop at Piccadilly Station, says, “I never voted and I won’t change now. None of the politicians I see on the telly convince me they’re worth voting for.” Laura, who works at the local employment center, is equally skeptical. “Every election I read the parties’ manifestos and agree with only parts of their policies. Lots of friends tell me I must vote, but I see how each time they’re disappointed by the politicians they voted for, so I prefer not to vote,” she says.

Besides the recent terror attack, Brexit remains a major issue for many voters. John Fulton, a textile company manager who had just gotten off the train from Glasgow on his way to a business meeting, says he voted for the Scottish National Party. “I want Scotland to be independent so we can remain in the European Union. For a business like mine, the low tariff deals the EU has with countries which we import from are essential. And after Brexit, Britain won’t have those,” says Fulton.

And then there are those who are still unsure. Mike Senny, operations manager at a contracting company, says he has voted for Labour his entire life. “This time I can’t because of Corbyn,” he laments. “He’s just someone whose ideology is more important than anything, and he’ll always prefer his dogma to helping real people. But it doesn’t matter what I vote, because the area I live in is solid Labour. So I just won’t vote.”

Only one Conservative voter was to be found in central Manchester on Thursday morning. Julie, the manager of a betting shop, says that “since the terror attack I’m clearly for the Conservatives. Theresa May made some mistakes, but she’s fought on terror. Not like Corbyn. I think a lot of people here agree with me but are ashamed to say it because it’s such a Labour community.” She, however, won’t make it to the polling station because of a triple shift at the betting shop until after the polls close.

Fifteen minutes north of central Manchester, very different voices are heard. This is where the largest number of Jews outside of London live, in the religious and, in some cases, ultra-Orthodox communities of Broughton, Prestwich and Bury. There, outside the disposal goods business he manages, Avi Leitner says bluntly, “I’m not going to vote for Corbyn. He’s a twat who believes in talking to terrorists. Of course I’m going to vote for the Conservatives, like most people here.”

Avi says he also voted in favor of leaving the European Union last summer, “because of all the Haredim here who come from other parts of Europe like Belgium and live off benefits instead of working. I work and my wife does as well. We should close our borders so that people who don’t want to work aren’t allowed in, even if they’re Jewish.”

For many Jews who previously voted Labour, Corbyn is a major issue. “I wrote a letter to my member of parliament, Labour’s Graham Stringer, and told him that it wasn’t personal,” says Yossi, who works at a local kosher butcher shop. “I said that I know he’s done great things for this constituency and has good relations with the Jewish community, but I can’t vote for someone who represents Corbyn’s party. I was surprised to get back a very polite answer. He wrote that he sympathizes with me and that he also didn’t vote for Corbyn in the leadership election.”

The Jewish vote will probably not cost Stringer his seat, since Jews make up only a small proportion of the Blackley and Broughton constituency. But Jews have a much larger say in the neighboring constituency of Bury South, where the veteran Jewish Labour MP Ivan Lewis is fighting for his political survival.

David, a shopper at the local butcher’s, says “it’s an awful dilemma for a lot of people. Ivan is a wonderful man who has done so much for the area, for Jews and non-Jews. I can’t bring myself to vote against him, but I can’t vote for Corbyn’s Labour either. I probably just won’t vote.”

But there are also Jews voting despite it all. “I don’t care about Corbyn and his views on Israel,” says a man in a black kippa leaving the store. “Britain doesn’t have any real international influence anymore, so what does it matter? I’m voting Labour because they will take better care of the economy and the social services. That’s what’s important. Anyway," he adds, "Corbyn will be gone soon.”