With a margin of only 110 votes in 2010, the constituency of Hendon in North London swung from Labour to Conservative. For 2015, there’s everything to play for. Only a tiny fraction of voters need change their position from 2010 to swing the seat to Labour. With a Jewish population of around 17% — compared to a national figure of 0.5% — the Jewish vote will play a significant role in determining the outcome of the seat.
Talk of a ‘Jewish vote’ in British politics has courted its share of controversy. In a 2010 article for The Guardian, historian Geoffrey Alderman remembers community leaders’ resistance to analysis of Jewish votes in the 1970s. The objections Alderman recounts stemmed from the idea that research into the distinctively Jewish vote implied that Jews were not fully integrated into British society. The concern was that such research made Jews out to be something other than ordinary British voters.
The voting tendencies of citizens who share a common characteristic, be it religious, ethnic, cultural, socio-economic or age-related, are frequently studied by pollsters and political scientists. There is a line between studying correlations between one of these factors and a party political preference, and projecting a quality of sameness onto voters who share such a characteristic. That line can be crossed by clumsy presentation of research, but simply undertaking research into voting patterns need not imply that its subjects form a homogeneous or isolated bloc.
It needs to be clear that talk of the Jewish vote, or indeed the Catholic vote, the Welsh vote, or the vote of the ‘squeezed middle’ does not equate to making out that people with these characteristics are all the same for political purposes. Talking about the Catholic vote is just useful shorthand for talking about general trends within the Catholic population, which might be different from the trends we observe in the population as a whole. When examining any ‘vote’ of a particular group of people, one of the things researchers will be most interested by is its internal diversity. But, taking care not to cross the line between examining patterns between individuals and lumping individuals together is particularly important when discussing voting patterns in communities which have, historically or presently, been marginalised.
It has taken some time to make advances in understanding religious voting patterns on a national scale in the UK. The literature is less developed here than in the US. Religion does not play the same role in our politics, so research into religion and politics will generally be incentivised to a lesser degree. That is not to say, though, that there aren’t distinctive trends within Britain’s religious populations.
In the afore-mentioned 2010 article, Alderman observed that research into the relationships between ethnicity, religion and voting was particularly underdeveloped in the 1970s relative to considerations of class or geographical region. Yet, the idea that there is some connection between religious communities and voting habits significantly preexisted contemporary political science. Alderman notes that history gives examples of clear connections between distinctively Jewish votes and election results as far back as Lionel de Rothschild’s election to the House of Commons in 1847.
The most up to date research on the role of religion in contemporary British voting comes from Theos’ 2010 report Voting and Values in Britain. In that report, the data suggests that Jewish voters are more likely to support the Conservatives than any other major religious grouping. 58% of British Jews surveyed voted Conservative in 2010, with 21% voting Labour and 16% voting Lib Dem. Interestingly, the Jewish vote in the United States is more polarised, and differently positioned on the political spectrum — in 2012, 69% of US Jewish votes were for Obama, with 30% for Romney. On both sides of the Atlantic, the figures caution against treating the Jewish vote as homogenous, but indicate strong and distinctive trends within Jewish communities.
An analysis of the Jewish vote controlling for other relevant factors — income, nature of employment, age — would be needed to determine how much work Jewish voters’ identification as Jewish is doing to determine their voting habits nationwide. In other words, to know how much weight distinctively Jewish values have in determining Jewish votes, we would need to filter out the effect of any other factors which might go towards making Jewish voters more likely than other religious groups to vote Conservative. In the (disappointing) absence of such analysis, we can start to pick out issues that have been shown to be more important for Jewish voters, and consider their role and prominence in local contests.
Policy on Israel is an obvious place to start when considering issues which might be of greater priority to Jewish voters. Yet, JPR’s report on the 2010 Israel Survey found that 6% of Jewish voters said that Israel is “the central issue” they consider when voting in Britain. This contrasts with the 60% who said that Israel is either not an issue or only one of several issues that influences their voting behaviour. It seems that Israel is not as high-priority an issue for Jewish voters as media rhetoric often implies, at least in the UK.
Jewish Conservatives are the most likely, at 45%, to consider Israel a high or central priority issue when deciding how to vote. With particular relevance to thinking about outcomes in marginal constituencies, 40% of Jewish voters who were undecided about who to vote for considered Israel a high or central priority issue. That suggests that Jewish voters with weaker party loyalties are more likely to be tempted by a representative’s personal and party stance on Israel. But — and this is obvious — Israel and Palestine matter to pro-Palestinians too. The issue has particular significance among UK Muslims, who at 13.9% of Hendon’s population are nearly as numerous as Jewish voters. In Hendon, candidates’ and parties’ stances on Israel and Palestine will be of real importance, but the net effect may be difficult to discern.
Since 2010, Ed Miliband’s increasingly critical stance on Israel has alienated prominent Jewish donors. The votes of ordinary British Jews can’t be predicted with reference to community leaders and party donors. Both groups are likely to be more politicised, and the former certainly to have a more entrenched stance on the politics of Israel. But, for Labour candidates in 2010, even those with a strong pro-Israel record such as Hendon’s Andrew Dismore, Miliband’s Israel stance will likely make picking up Jewish votes at the margins more difficult.
Conservative candidates face their own problems in areas with a significant Jewish community. Nigel Farage and UKIP are strongly pro-Israel. The transition from Conservative to UKIP is more natural than from the other major parties, all else being equal. With Conservative Jewish voters more likely to prioritise Israel as a policy issue than other Jewish voters, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to propose that Jewish votes which swing to UKIP will be taking a disproportionate bite out of previous Conservative support. It is this factor which leads Geoffrey Alderman, in a 2014 article for the Jewish Chronicle, to suppose that UKIP’s targeting of Hendon for 2015 will favour Andrew Dismore.
In that same article, Alderman described the divide between Jewish community leaders and voters who are contemptuous of Nigel Farage and his party, and those who are ‘wowed’. This sounds remarkably similar to the party’s reception in the wider population. But according to Alderman, what had a largely Jewish audience at Hendon ‘captivated’ by Farage was not his stance on the EU or anti-establishment sentiment, but instead his support for Israel and opposition to gay marriage. It seems that the section of the Jewish vote susceptible to UKIP is persuaded for quite distinctive reasons.
Alderman also writes, though, that Hackney-based Charedim’s (a stream of Orthodox Jews) support for local MP Diane Abbot is largely unaffected by her vocal support for gay marriage. The issues which may bear a different significance in Jewish communities than in others are rarely, as we’ve seen, the most important for determining the most Jewish votes.
In Hendon, the recent selection of Jeremy Zeid as UKIP candidate for the 2015 general election is likely to add an additional layer of complexity. Zeid is Jewish, and staunchly pro-Israel; but caused a scandal in June 2014 over tweets referring ‘white faces’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Ilford. His keynote response to that outrage, which made the front page of Jewish News, was a controversial defence in the same paper. In the run up to May Zeid is likely to be a divisive figure, and the local politics of local personalities will have a separate importance from those of the national leaders.
As for any other set of voters united by a common characteristic, factors distinct from their Jewishness will be dominant in determining where Jewish votes go in 2015. But, more distinctively Jewish concerns will play a role – we have seen that Israel was more important to less partisan Jewish voters in 2010, and that the issue is already a contested ground between local candidates and parties. In a constituency with a margin as small as 110 votes, these concerns will likely play a role disproportionate to their overall significance to voters. This means that the Jewish vote will be an important concept when examining Hendon in the run up to 2015; but that its treatment by politicians and media sources will likely exaggerate its distinctiveness. The latter trend should be kept in mind when thinking about the former.