Thursday, 21 January 2010

The Jewish vote in British Politics

In his Jewish chronicle column this week, Geoffrey Alderman discusses the Jewish vote in British politics: where (and if) it matters, which MPs it may effect, and evidence that at least one MP takes it seriously. Given his history of research on the Jewish community in British Politics (from which I'll be drawing on later in this post) when Alderman writes on these subjects the chances are he's on to something.

The main points:

  • Of the ten constituencies with the highest Jewish population, no less than 7 are currntly held by Labour.
  • Jewish voters are unlikely to swing the vote either way in five of those constituencies, either because they are too marginal (too likely to swing Tory) or too safe.
  • That leaves Harrow East and Hendon. Both these seats would fall to the Conservatives on swings of between 3.0 and 3.8 per cent.
  • In both cases, a Jewish sympathy vote for the incumbent MP could — just conceivably — save the seats for Labour

Some thoughts...

I live in one of the two Jewish-vote-significant constituencies (Hendon). My MP, Andrew Dismore, has certainly tried to appeal to his Jewish constituents. (See the clip below for example, when he used Prime Minister's questions to ask the Prime Minister to wish the Jewish community a happy chanukah.)

But I wonder: how large a factor does the 'Jewishness' of a voter play in their voting decisions? Ignoring class, income, age and other factors, how much of a 'Jewish' effect is there on a Jewish voter's decisions? My guess is not a great deal.

Beyond a strong anti-Israel stance, a desire to ban kosher slaughter, and an opposition to faith schools, I can't think of any other position a parliamentary candidate could take that would be likely to swing many Jewish voters against them for specifically Jewish-related reasons (can you?) Given the fact that in Hendon both Labour and Tory candidate alike will almost certainly take the same positions on these issues, I can't see voters choosing one way or the other out of any specifically Jewish consideration.

The historical context
How have the Jews voted in the past and why? Could this offer any clues as to how they will vote? (I don't think so, by the way, but it's fun to write about anyway...)

In 1867 the Jewish chronicle editorial claimed:
"The Jew feels instinctively that, politically, he is nothing if not a liberal"

This is unsurprising: Jews had been allowed to take a seat in parliament for only since the previous decade, and it was thanks to the Liberal party that they could. The conservatives had opposed changing the rules to allow Jewish MPs to take their seats without swearing a Christian Oath. No wonder the Liberals were the party of the Jews.

Fast forward 25 years and the situation was altogether different. The Chief Rabbi, Hermann Adler, was politically Conservative. So too was D.W. Marks, Minister at West London Reform Synagogue. British Jews, it seemed, no longer were 'instinctively... liberal'.

The reason for the change is twofold.

First, memories are short. As time went on Jewish voters stopped caring about the fact that the Conservatives had previously blocked the entry of Jewish parliamentarians (indeed, very soon after Rothschild took his seat the Conservatives got a couple of Jewish MPs of their own).

Second, the anti-Jewish pograms in the Russian Pale of Settlement, where 4 milion Jews lived, changed the British-Jewish political landscape. Gladstone was largely silent on the issue of Russian persecution of Jews while the Conservatives were more vocal. Moreover, the persecution led to mass immigration to Britain. Between 1880 and 1914 150,000 Jewish immigrants arrived in Britain, greatly enlarging the number of Jews in Britain, which had stood at 60,000 in 1880. The established Jewish population in Britain were nevous about the immigration. Most of the migrants were poor, spoke little English, and tended to be more Orthodox than the established, and largely sephardi, British Jewish community. How would their arrival change peoples' views on Jews? Would it lead to antisemitism? Conservative MPs supported legislation to restrict the flow of Jewish immigrants; because they feared the consequences of mass Jewish immigration, many British Jews were supportive of this approach, and therefore supportive of the Tories. (To dissuade Jewish immigrants from coming, the Jewish Board of Guardians, for example, put adverts in Jewish publications in Russia stating that life in Britain would be full of hardship).

In the 1906 election the Jewish Chronicle came out in support of the Liberals. There was some evidence that the Jewish immigrants had been responsible for turning the Jewish tide back to the Liberals. But this return to cordial relations between Britain's Jews and the Liberals was to be short lived.

In 1909 the Jewish politician Nathan Rothschild slammed the Liberal Party's 'People's Budget'. It was, he said, a 'robber's budget'. In response Lloyd George likened Rothschild to Pharoah. The Jews were not pleased... After a Liberal parliamentary candidate ran an anti-semitic campaign in Salford South, Alderman notes, 'the second honeymoon between Anglo Jewry and the Liberal party was well and truly over'.

Speed on to 1922 and a young(ish) party - Labour - was to have its electoral breakthrough in an election marred by antisemitism. (while not winning the election, Labour won 23% of the seats - up on the 8% won at the previous vote). The Morning Post and the Spectator argued that British politics was being dominated by Jews and Jewish considerations and the Labour party was branded as pro-Jewish in an effort to harness popular antisemitism against it. Whether or not Labour was pro-Jewish I'm not sure, but the Jews were becoming increasingly pro-labour. For example, all three of the seats for Whitechapel, then the most Jewish constituency, swung to Labour. The tendency for Jews to vote labour was to stay for some time.

The upward social mobility of Britain's Jews contributed to an increase in the numbe of Jews voting Conservative voting in the 80s. More recently, however, there appears to have been a swing back to Labour: in the 1997 election constituencies with large Jewish populations registered a swing to Labour greater than the national average.

As for the soon-to-come election, well, we'll have to wait and see.


  1. Great post. One thing I'm interested in that you don't mention - what is turnout like amongst the Jewish community? Is it significant enough to have any effect?

    Interesting to compare this to America. If I may quote myself from a recent essay: "The knowledge that being Jewish is highly correlated with voting for the Democratic candidate is useful, as it allows us to make predictions about voting behaviour; yet it does not explain why Jewish voters overwhelmingly vote for Democrats." Reading on, it seems I don't actually answer this question, just noting that being Jewish implied an 88% probability of voting for Clinton in 1992. Perhaps you could enlighten us?

  2. I don't know any stats on Jewish turnout at elections. I doubt it would be anything unusual.

    As for why Jews vote Democrats in the US:

    (1) US Jews tend to be liberal and the Democrats are the more liberal party.

    (2) Roosevelt in particular was popular among US Jews back in the day, and the identifiction with the democrats that encouraged has persisted.

    (3) There's a Jewish idea of Tikkun Olam - 'repairing the world' - which refers to dealing with both social and environmental issues. For many Jews - and especially among more progressive Jews, who make up the bulk of US Jewry - this is an important part of their Jewish identity. The better record on social justice issues of the Democrats therefore appeals to these Jews.

    For more answers, consult google (;