So, there really is a Jewish vote

As political pundits focus on the margins, it is clear that it is no longer illegitimate to speak of ethnic voting patterns

April 15, 2010 11:33

Even before Gordon Brown had journeyed to Buckingham Palace to ask the Queen for a dissolution of parliament, I had found myself on the receiving end of inquiries from the media as to the existence and likely impact of "the Jewish vote".

The fact that we can now ask these questions in public - "Is there a Jewish vote and, if so, what effect might it have?"- shows how far we have come during my own lifetime as an academic interested in such matters.

As recently as 30 years ago, such questions could not be asked - or, if they were asked, the asker would be speedily rebuffed, probably taken to one side and told that even to make such inquiries was tantamount to a shameful display of anti-Jewish prejudice.

On the eve of the February 1974 general election, the Board of Deputies actually advised communal leaders to tell inquirers that, "to all intents and purposes", a Jewish vote "does not exist in this country".

When the late Sir Keith Joseph journeyed to the Ilford North constituency during a crucial by-election there in the spring of 1978, to enlist the support of Jewish voters for the Conservative challenger for this then Labour-held seat, he delivered a remarkable speech (now known to have been written for him by the late Sir Alfred Sherman).

How well I remember that lunch at which I was told to stop my research ‘at once’

In it, he told the Jews that the best way to contain the National Front was to support Conservative immigration policies. For this, he was roundly condemned by - among others - the then editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Geoffrey Paul.

"To appeal to Jewish electors to vote, as Jews, for the vague Conservative proposals for stricter immigration control, as Sir Keith has incautiously done," thundered Mr Paul, "goes against the whole tradition of independent Jewish citizenship in this country.

"There is no such thing in Britain as a Jewish vote", continued Mr Paul, "and it will be a wretched day if ever one emerges."

Yet it was Keith Joseph and not Geoffrey Paul who had correctly judged the mood of the constituency's Jewish electors: the Tories won back Ilford North on a swing of 6.9 per cent, but among Jewish voters the swing was a massive 11.2 per cent.

How did I know this? Because I had by then begun to conduct surveys of Jewish voters in selected London constituencies.

Indeed, at the very moment when the then Board of Deputies president, Lord Fisher of Camden, was telling a French doctoral researcher that "as far as we are concerned, the political views of English Jews are no different from the rest of the electorate", and was going out of his way to emphasise that even to inquire into these matters was "imprudent, even dangerous" - adding that "public opinion must believe in a truly integrated Jewish community, no different from its fellow citizens" - I was collecting the evidence that would prove him wrong.

How well I remember the bizarre luncheon I had agreed to attend at the offices of the board, hosted by the head of its defence department, the late Dr Jack Gewirtz, at which I had been told that "in the communal interest" I must stop this research "at once".

How times change! Among the headings placed above election-related stories in last week's JC were: "Big guns set their sights on Hendon"; "Muslims vow to unseat Zionists"; "How the Jewish vote could swing it." And among stories in earlier issues was one reporting Ken Livingstone's belief (JC, March 26 ) that the Board of Deputies had played a part in losing him the London mayoral contest two years ago. (Ken, it was the Jews in general rather than the Board).

I do not know whether the May 6 poll will result in a hung parliament. I do know that many politicians of various political persuasions believe that it might.

In such a climate, it is inevitable that every ethnic card that can be played will be laid on the table. The public invocation of a Jewish vote is not only predictable, therefore. It is a sign of a vibrant democratic state.

April 15, 2010 11:33

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