Elections are no longer a binary choice for Jews

The Corbyn years are not forgotten, but it is a relief to have a choice how to vote once again


Polling Station signs outside a school in the UK.

April 21, 2022 16:54

All is not forgiven. How could it be? 

“My first words as Labour leader included an apology,” Keir Starmer told the JC recently. But however much distance he puts between himself and his predecessor, he was there. Present, and very much involved. 

In 2019, he asked us to elect a man who many feared would jeopardise the future of British Jews. He may have since publicly disavowed Jeremy Corbyn, he may even have frequently seemed to be at odds with the leadership back then, but the fact remains. He didn’t resign, nor even say, as Wes Streeting did, that he respected those who could not vote for him because of his leader. He hedged his bets, hence why I and others backed Lisa Nandy for leader.  

So not quite water under the bridge. But this isn’t a column about voting Labour. You know Starmer’s record and can evaluate for yourself whether enough has indeed been enough. 

This is a column about choice, and the privilege of exercising it. December 2019 feels a lifetime ago, and so does the feeling of a question mark hovering over the British Jewish future. I was never in the ‘I’ll emigrate if…” camp but that period was unsettling; the undertone of every Shabbat conversation, the everpresent feeling of “what next?”. It shook the foundations of what had until then been a rock-solid dual identity.  

Many Jews felt like our hands were tied. Of course, it can’t be repeated enough that the idea of a single, unified “Jewish vote” is spurious (and sometimes a slur). But, undeniably, Jewish support for Labour fell off a cliff under Corbyn, with only 7% indicating support in ahead of the election — an astonishing low for a party that once held a good grip on the “bagel belt”, 

Personally, my religion was significantly more of a driving factor than I hope it will ever be again. I felt I had no good choices; vote as a Jew and the decision was obvious, but what of everything else? 

As I said, all isn’t forgiven. But a very long two and a half years later, with local elections imminent, there’s a case for drawing a line. Not under the fact of the antisemitism scandal that engulfed Labour, but under a political reality that necessarily placed Jewishness high on the list of priorities determining our vote.  

Because the picture has changed. You may not be a Starmer fan but, crudely, the contest British Jews face now is not a binary one between a bogeyman and someone who — depending on perspective — was either the deliverer of Brexit or the best worst option.   

We can, and should, make choices based on the now. Local ballots are fought on things like bin collections and potholes. But historically they’ve been about sending a message, and for the current scandal-ridden leadership and an opposition some see as lacklustre, the result is likely to set the course ahead.  

We must judge for ourselves what to make of partygate, procurement scandals and pandemic handling; take a view on whether enough is being done to support those on the lowest incomes as inflation soars. And we must do so not primarily as Jewish voters, but as voters like any other.  

I hated in 2019 that antisemitism was such a talking point, because it was a distraction; a poison that inhibited a decent opposition and gave the governing party a moral high ground they absolutely had not earned. And it left fewer column inches to talk about matters with more national salience. 

Today, there are huge issues to grapple with. And however fresh the wounds of 2015 to 2019 are, our responsibility as British Jews is to make decisions based on today’s reality, whether that’s the handling of Ukraine, the response to turmoil in energy and food markets, or our refugee policy.  

There are deepseated challenges facing healthcare; a long-overdue reckoning for maternity care. There is grappling for another referendum in Scotland; continued turmoil in Northern Ireland, and a cost of living crisis that is only worsening.  

We’re at a time when we require strong leadership. I’m not a campaigner for any party, and I don’t have any truck with Jewish newspapers advising readers how to vote. Perhaps you’ll stay home, perhaps you’ll be energized to make a protest vote. It’s up to you. And two and a half years on, that decision may not be simple, but I’m thankful to feel much less burdened in making it. To make it not “as a Jew”, but as anyone else would. 

In 2022, with no existential threat to Jewish life here but plenty of other challenges to address, it matters that we make the choices we think are best for the country. After a turbulent time, that’s not something to take for granted.  

April 21, 2022 16:54

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