This article of mine appears in the new edition of the Jerusalem Report, dated 6 January 2020
Britain’s 2019 general election was both historic and unique. It was historic in the scale of the nation’s rejection of the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn – not since 1935 had Labour suffered so massive an electoral defeat. It was unique in the fact that never before had antisemitism and the interests of the Jewish community played a role in a British election.
Commenting on the election result the former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone – suspended but never expelled from the Labour Party for a succession of antisemitic remarks – said: “The Jewish vote wasn’t very helpful.” But the Jewish vote was not very significant either. There are about 290,000 Jews in the UK, some 0.4 percent of the population. They tend to be concentrated in certain locations within the big cities – London, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow. So although the Jewish vote could perhaps have influenced the result in a few constituencies, it could not possibly have had any significant effect on the overall picture.
Nevertheless, the issue of antisemitism was undoubtedly a major factor before and during the election campaign in eroding confidence in the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and in the party’s eventual electoral downfall. The 2019 election was lost by Labour on two issues: Brexit and Corbyn’s unpopularity.
Large swathes of Labour’s traditional working class supporters in the centre and north of England had voted Leave in the Brexit referendum, while Labour’s middle-class professionals and new, young, urban-based adherents were solidly Remain. In attempting to mollify both by adopting a so-called “neutral” position on the issue, Corbyn succeeded in satisfying neither. His core working-class support felt betrayed by his failure to carry through his initial promise to implement the result of the referendum, and deserted Labour in droves.
Labour canvassers attempting to drum up support on the doorstep found that Labour’s Brexit failure was matched by a widespread rejection of Corbyn himself as a possible prime minister. He was perceived as unpatriotic, untrustworthy on the issue of the nation’s security, and tarred with the brush of antisemitism – in that order.
The antisemitism issue had been highlighted in an unprecedented intervention by the UK’s Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, shortly after the election was called. In an article in The Times, Britain’s leading newspaper of record, he virtually urged both the Jewish community and the nation as a whole, not to vote Jeremy Corbyn into Number 10 Downing Street as prime minister. His article was endorsed almost immediately by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the leader of the Church of England.
"With the heaviest of hearts,” wrote Rabbi Mirvis, “I call upon the citizens of our great country to study what has been unfolding before our very eyes,” setting out in stark detail some of the main failures in leadership on the issue of antisemitism in the Labour party that had marked Corbyn’s period in office. We have watched with incredulity, he said, “as supporters of the Labour leadership have hounded parliamentarians, party members and even staff out of the party for facing down anti-Jewish racism. Even as they received unspeakable threats against themselves and their families, the response of the Labour leadership was utterly inadequate.
“We have endured quibbling and prevarication over whether the party should adopt the most widely accepted definition of antisemitism in the world. When the breakthrough came it was not without amendments, suggesting Labour knows more about antisemitism than Jewish people do.”
“Mendacious fiction” was how the Chief Rabbi described claims by the Labour leadership to be doing everything it reasonably could to tackle anti-Jewish racism, and that it has “investigated every single case”. He maintained that there are “at least 130 outstanding cases currently before the party – some dating back years – and thousands more have been reported but remain unresolved.”
Rabbi Mirvis asked how complicit in prejudice would a leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition have to be in order to be considered unfit for high office.
“Would associations with those who have openly incited hatred against Jews be enough?” he queried. “Would support for a racist mural, depicting powerful hook-nosed Jews supposedly getting rich at the expense of the weak and downtrodden be enough? Would describing as “friends” those who endorse and even perpetrate the murder of Jews be enough?”
His wry conclusion was: “It seems not.”
Elsewhere in the article the Chief Rabbi wrote: “Many members of the Jewish community can hardly believe that this is the same party that they proudly called their political home for more than a century… This is the Labour Party in name only.”
He concluded: “It is not my place to tell any person how they should vote. I simply pose the following question: What will the result of this election say about the moral compass of our country? …Be in no doubt – the very soul of our nation is at stake.”
The last opinion polls before election day were far from unanimous. Some predicted a hung parliament like the one Boris Johnson was seeking to escape from, with no party gaining an outright majority. Most forecast a small working majority for Johnson’s Conservative party, with the more adventurous suggesting a margin of error reaching as high as 40 seats.
Then, on the dot of 10 pm, with the voting stations firmly closed, the media announced the result of the nationwide exit poll. To the total incredulity not only of the TV and radio presenters, but of the nation as a whole, it appeared that the Labour party had suffered a major defeat, losing nearly 50 seats, while the Conservatives, with a total tally of some 370 seats, had won a majority over all other parties of something like 80.
Next day one UK journalist, Allison Pearson, wrote: ”Oh, that exit poll! Will we ever forget the sense of joy’n’relief intermingled when it flashed up on the BBC? Immediately, I called my Jewish friend. “Thank God, thank God,” she said, over and over, a lifelong Labour voter made politically homeless by the terrible Trots.” Pearson concluded her article with: “I hope the Chief Rabbi is pleased. The soul of our nation is intact.”
Labour’s electoral débacle started early. The first results began to appear at about 11.30 pm. The first two were Labour seats returning candidates with reduced majorities. Then came Blyth Valley, a constituency so solidly Labour that it had been considered beyond the reach of the Conservatives. Lo and behold, it had confounded all expectations and chosen a Conservative as its Member of Parliament – a Conservative, moreover, tantalizingly named Ian Levy. Mr Levy’s family claims a 500-year ancestry in Blyth, a coastal town in the south-east of the county of Northumberland. So shocked by the result was Levy, a mental health worker, that with tears in his eyes he could hardly deliver his victory speech.
Johnson won the election on a slogan of just three words – just as he had achieved his surprising victory in the Brexit referendum. On that occasion his campaign was masterminded by the maverick strategist Dominic Cummings, who devised the crowd-puller: “Take Back Control”. For the 2019 election, Johnson summoned back the young Australian strategist who had devised and carried through his two successful bids for the London mayoralty, and the Conservative’s 2015 general election campaign. Isaac Levido left his job as deputy director of Australia’s Liberal Party in August 2019 and came to the UK to put the Conservative party on a war footing, working under the general direction of Dominic Cummings. Cummings no doubt had a say in the three-word vote-winning slogan repeated constantly by Johnson during the campaign: “Get Brexit Done”.
That slogan will persist at least until the UK actually leaves the EU on January 31, 2020. But Johnson has a broader vision for the country - a vision drawing its inspiration from Britain’s nineteenth century Jewish-born prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli. Back in the 1840s, while leading a rebel group called “Young England” in the Tory party (the predecessor of today’s Conservatives), he wrote two novels in which he expounded his view that the rapid industrialization of Britain had widened the chasm in society between the rich and the poor.
Into the mouth of one of his characters in Sybil, or The Two Nations, he put: “Two nations, between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.” Although Disraeli himself never used the phrase “One Nation”, it was under that soubriquet that his political philosophy was subsequently adopted by the Conservative party, and had an enormous influence on its development. As Boris Johnson has declared: “I'm a one-nation Tory. There is a duty on the part of the rich to the poor and to the needy.”
Standing outside the prime minister’s London residence in Downing Street, after the final results of Britain’s 2019 general election had been published, Johnson reiterated the underlying philosophy of his predecessor, Benjamin Disraeli: “In winning this election we have won votes and the trust of people who have never voted Conservative before…Those people want change. We cannot, must not, let them down. And in delivering change we must change too. We must recognize the incredible reality that we now speak as a one-nation Conservative Party literally for everyone.”
Johnson shares with Disraeli another deeply-held political philosophy – Zionism. Like his eminent predecessor, Johnson has declared himself “a passionate Zionist.” Unlike Corbyn, who promised to recognize the state of Palestine and end arms exports to Israel if he became prime minister, Johnson is enthusiastically in favour of expanding all aspects of Anglo-Israeli trade, which has been growing exponentially in the past few years. Under the Johnson government, UK-Israeli relations are likely to become even closer across the board, not least in the high-tech, security and intelligence fields. Post-Brexit Britain is eager to expand relationships with friendly nations outside the EU. Israel stands high on that list. The UK’s 2019 general election is likely to prove highly beneficial not only to its Jewish community, but to Israel as well.
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 27 December 2019: