So, then, who is a Jewish voter?

We may be more prepared to talk today of a ‘Jewish vote’, but it still does not exist

November 24, 2016 20:54

The three main political parties pursued Jewish voters with something approaching religious fervour during the election. The pages of this newspaper provide a clear testimony to this. Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg all gave thoughtful answers to a series of questions posed by the JC, while a series of senior politicians gave interviews and wrote pieces aimed at reassuring the community that their parties had Jewish interests at heart.

It is now well established that, in the minds of the political class at least, there is now a "Jewish vote", which can be pursued as a bloc. But I wonder if this is such a healthy development for community politics and the wider political culture.

Before we get too carried away, remember that the polls were so tight in this election that politicians believed they had to chase down every vote, Jewish or not. Personal appearances by Gordon Brown and Tony Blair in north London were prompted as much by the Labour Party's fear of losing the key seats of Hendon, Harrow East and Hampstead and Kilburn as it was by a genuine commitment to the Jewish community.

The Liberal Democrats and the Tories have made the right noises at a national level but, on the ground, candidates have been happy to play the anti-Israel card, where it suits their local political purposes. In York, the LibDem candidate, Madeleine Kirk, was forced to apologise for comments about the influence of the "Jewish lobby", while Martin Law-Riding, the Tory candidate in Jack Straw's Blackburn constituency, issued a leaflet claiming Labour had "allowed the Israeli government to create havoc in Lebanon and Gaza in Palestine".

My colleague Geoffrey Alderman was right to say in a recent JC column that, 30 years ago, it would have not have been acceptable to talk in these terms. Indeed, the Board of Deputies officially announced on the eve of the first election of 1974 that the Jewish vote did not exist.

It is right too that we should no longer be afraid to speak of the political interests of individuals who choose to identify themselves as members of religious or ethnic minorities. But it is important to sound a note of caution. The segmentation of British politics into monolithic slabs of votes to be delivered to one party or another was a sinister development of late-20th-century politics in Britain. The carving of Britain into "green", "gay", "Muslim" or Jewish constituencies has coincided with the collapse of traditional ideology, the mass membership of political parties and faith in the political system.

In some cases, I believe, there is a connection. Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone based his whole political strategy (and two election victories) on such segmentation. His disgraceful embracing of Islamist cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi was based on the most cynical of calculations. By lending his support to an extremist who had backed suicide bombing and called for the murder of homosexuals, he knew he risked alienating large sections of the Jewish and gay communities. But he was prepared to sacrifice their support in favour of an imagined "Muslim vote".

The Conservative Party has distanced itself from the attacks on Mr Straw. But Straw has to take some responsibility for the sectarian atmosphere in his constituency and beyond. His encouragement of the Muslim Council of Britain as the "one-stop-shop" for British Muslim opinion was driven by a desire to carve out a pro-Labour Islamic block - a catastrophic error that alienated vast numbers of Muslims who did not subscribe to the MCB "line".

It is convenient for politicians to think in this way, but as citizens we should resist these rigid categories. Even on the touchstone Jewish issues (Israel, education, security, antisemitism and radicalisation) there is a vast range of opinion. I am reminded of this by readers every time I make the mistake of representing the view of the Board of Deputies or the Jewish Leadership Council as that of the community as a whole.

In a new political world we need to recognise that old certainties are gone but we must not replace rigid left-right ideological divisions with new walls between (and within) our communities. If there is a Jewish vote then it is as diverse and complex as the people that make it up.

November 24, 2016 20:54

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