Hankering for the old days of positive politics

Being 'not Corbyn', 'not May' and 'not bad news for Jews' is a pretty low bar, says Jennifer Lipman. It’s a dispiriting fact of politics that we’re at a stage where that could seem enough.

June 06, 2019 15:32

‘For British Jews she will be remembered by most as a leader who offered them and Israel unprecedented support”. She may have fluffed Brexit and achieved little progress on those “burning injustices”, but, as the JC noted, British Jews could sleep easily while Theresa May was in Number 10.

Regardless of who triumphs in summer’s unedifying Conservative leadership contest, that will likely remain true. Most frontrunners have spoken about the importance of challenging antisemitism and protecting Jewish institutions. Their pronouncements on Israel have not been a departure from the Blair-Brown-Cameron years. Given the rise of extremism around Europe, along with the antisemitism-riddled Labour Party, it matters.

But also, when you consider what’s facing the next leader, being “not Corbyn”, “not May” and “not bad news for Jews” is a pretty low bar. It’s a dispiriting fact of politics that we’re at a stage where that could seem enough. We must remember it’s not.

Already, the Conservative contest feels like a race to the bottom, with candidates willing to make promises they and we know are undeliverable. These hopefuls may be largely good for the Jews, but whether they would be good for the country is a different question. After all, to put it starkly, history makes clear that unstable leadership — and it’s hard to see any of these choices leading to stability — does minority groups no favours.

Of course, most of us don’t get a say. But as a community that prides ourselves on being outward-looking, we should want and expect more from national leaders than just what suits our narrow needs. A commitment to equality and tolerance doesn’t work if it’s only a commitment to equality for some.

We shouldn’t feel that because we can sleep easy it’s a moot point whether others can — and we should feel cheapened by candidates who think that will suffice. Trump courting a right-wing Jewish vote by demonising Muslims is no different, ultimately, to Labour playing to an anti-Israel base.

Looking at some of these candidates — their records on social issues, equality or the environment — just ticking the “won’t make us want to leave the country” box seems poor compensation. Leaving aside Brexit, big questions lie ahead. What are their plans for tackling rising homelessness, stimulating housebuilding, or carbon reduction?

And how much are they willing to play to the audience? Remember Boris Johnson’s comments about burkas and letterboxes? Or Dominic Raab, self-proclaimed “champion of equality” who can’t quite bring himself to say feminist. In 2019, identifying thus should be no harder than condemning antisemitism without the caveat “and all forms of racism”. It should be the minimum we demand.

Or Esther McVey, who believes “parents should have the final say” on sex education. Music to the ears of the Charedim, perhaps, but it should appal those who believe children deserve to grow up fully informed, regardless of their community.

The sad truth is elections these days seem to be fought along lines of “best worst” and narrow sectoral interest as opposed to being able to inspire the nation or cut across divides. Yes, there are contests where it’s a binary choice — the 2012 London mayoral election felt like that, and one that could put Corbyn in Number 10 may well do — but we shouldn’t accept that as the default.

Speaking to a younger voter, we discussed that she’s never been able to make a positive choice at the ballot box.

Certainly, that’s characterised recent elections for me.

Even in the Europeans, I found myself voting for a Remain party but without any enthusiasm for a second referendum.

Perhaps things are changing. The swing yellow and green makes clear there’s a growing enthusiasm for something new, something else. And of course it was a protest, but still. It’s a start.

I have to cling to that. Because there was a time — wasn’t there? — when we voted for something, rather than against it. When we backed candidates because of who they were, not who they weren’t. And, crucially, for what they meant not just for us, but for our fellow citizens too.

On Shavuot, when we remember Ruth’s story and mark the beginning of the lineage that led to King David’s leadership, it seems apposite to reflect on that. Whoever wins the Tory race, there will be many more elections to come.

We can but hope they will be ones where we can make a choice about who would be best for all of us, not who we’re least afraid of. Being good news for our community matters, undoubtedly. But oh for a time when it wasn’t considered enough.

June 06, 2019 15:32

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