Ken still can't help himself

By Robert Philpot, May 16, 2014
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He just can't help it, can he? You would have thought that Ken Livingstone would have learned by now that, when it comes to all matters Jewish, he should keep his views firmly to himself. No one wants to hear them.

But there he was again last week opining on the community's supposed voting habits. I paraphrase, but it wasn't a much more sophisticated piece of psephological analysis than this: all Jews are rich and vote Tory.

It isn't the first time that Livingstone, who is currently running for re-election to Labour's governing National Executive Committee, has wandered into this particular minefield. Two years ago, during his ill-fated bid to reclaim London's City Hall, Livingstone met a group of Jewish Labour party members who were attempting to rebuild some of the bridges that the former mayor's incendiary remarks over the previous decade had set alight. Instead, Livingstone simply fanned the flames by claiming that "as the Jewish community is rich [it] simply wouldn't vote for him".

Let's leave aside the offensiveness of Livingstone's crude stereotyping, its relationship to his discredited form of "divide and rule" identity politics, and the question of why the Labour Party continues to tolerate such behaviour from him. Livingstone simply doesn't know what he's talking about.

It's true that the "Jewish vote" leaned more towards the Tories than Labour in 2010 and that will, in some regards, have been a reflection of the community's socio-economic make-up. But that's not the whole picture. As Ivor Crewe of the University of Essex has suggested, Jews are "generally to the left of people of the same socio-economic group".

For both sides there is little room for error

Moreover, as further research by the JPR in March 2010 showed, Jewish voters demonstrate many of the same characteristics as the country as a whole: Jewish men, those who are married, the over-60s, and the self-employed are more likely to vote Conservative, for instance. None of this is surprising or unique to the community, much as it would appear to come as a shock to Livingstone.

Livingstone speaks of Jewish voters not simply as a bloc, but an unmoving one at that. But anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with the manner in which the two main parties and the community have interacted over the past four decades knows that's not true. Labour's capture by the hard left, and consequent antagonism towards Israel, during the late 1970s and 1980s detached many Jews from their traditional support for the party.

Margaret Thatcher welcomed them with open arms. Tony Blair changed the equation again, purging the party of its "anti-Israelism," as one former aide put it. It wasn't, of course, all about Blair's strong support for Israel. His commitment to education, emphasis on the values of community and reciprocal responsibilities, and attempt to place Labour on the side of entrepreneurs resonated with many Jews.

In 1997, constituencies with large Jewish populations - including Thatcher's own former seat - fell to Labour with greater than average swings.

Small but heavily concentrated, the Jewish community will be on the general election front-line once again next May. Look at the 106 seats on Labour's target list. Among the constituencies the party needs to win to become the largest party are Hendon, Brent Central, Hove and Harrow East, while Finchley and Golders Green, Ilford North and Hornsey and Wood Green are vital if Ed Miliband wants a working majority.

At the same time, the Tories will be seeking to oust Labour in Hampstead and Kilburn and Harrow West in their bid to secure the majority denied them in 2010. For both sides, there's little room for error.

With the polls, historic precedents and economic indicators pointing to another tight finish, Labour would be foolish to pay any heed to Livingstone's pronouncements. It's not that Jews won't vote Labour.

As the gaping chasm between Livingstone's vote in the 2012 mayoral election and that of the party's Greater London assembly candidate in Barnet and Camden, Andrew Dismore, amply demonstrated, it's just that many of them have the good sense not to vote for him.

Robert Philpot is editor of Progress magazine

    Last updated: 3:47pm, May 16 2014