Jewish voters who abandoned U.K.’s Labour over antisemitism are returning


LONDON — Jewish people in Britain — immigrants, intellectuals, unionists — helped build the Labour Party in the last century. They abandoned it in droves when the party was led by Jeremy Corbyn, who, according to an independent human rights watchdog, allowed antisemitism to soar.

In the last general election in 2019, Labour got just 11 percent of the Jewish community’s vote.

Now it appears many British Jewish voters are set to return — with opinion polls reporting that a third to a half say they will support Labour in Thursday’s election, which is forecast to make Keir Starmer the next British prime minister, maybe by a landslide. The boost for Labour appears to coincide with a reduction of Jewish voter support for the center-right Conservative Party and the progressive Liberal Democrats.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer is favored to win Britain’s July 4 election and become the country’s new prime minister. Here’s everything to know about him. (Video: Naomi Schanen/The Washington Post)

Tom Clifford, a researcher at polling group Survation, which is tracking the vote, called it a “remarkable revival.”

To be sure, Labour’s overall comeback is eye-popping. It was trounced by the Conservatives five years ago. But among those willing to give Labour a second chance are Jewish voters who paid particular attention to how the party addressed antisemitism within its ranks.

“It’s night and day. The first thing Starmer said when he became Labour leader was issue an apology for the party’s antisemitism,” said Mike Katz, chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, which is affiliated with the Labour Party but refused to campaign for most Labour candidates in 2019.

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When Starmer took over the Labour Party in 2020, he put down a marker: that he and Labour should be judged on whether they could bring Jewish supporters back. He called antisemitism “a stain” on the party.

Under Starmer, Labour suspended and eventually expelled Corbyn in what some have described as a “purge” of hard left. The party also adopted the recommendations of the human rights commission on dealing with antisemitism complaints.

Jewish leaders and voters who spoke to The Washington Post said Labour no longer feels so alienating.

“A lot of Jewish people wanted to go back to the Labour Party. They didn’t want to leave in the first place, but felt forced to,” said Judy Trotter, an educator at London’s Jewish community center, JW3.

Trotter called Labour “a natural home.”

Starmer has said he is an atheist, but his wife Victoria comes from a Jewish family. He told the Guardian that they occasionally go with their teenage children to a liberal synagogue in north London and often say prayers for Shabbat.

After he said in another interview that he will continue to try to stop working at 6 p.m. on Fridays, Conservatives this week accused him of wanting to be a part-time prime minister. Starmer responded, “I would have thought to anybody it’s blindingly obvious that a Friday night is quite important in some religions and faiths.”

He has sought to convey that the Labour Party is a safe space for British Jews at the same time that antisemitism has been surging. Community Security Trust, a monitoring group, tracked a record 4,103 antisemitic incidents in Britain in 2023. The incidents included everything from social media trolling to assaults on the street. The majority occurred after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks and the start of the Israel-Gaza war.

The war has provoked impassioned protests in Britain, renewed debate about when criticism of Israel crosses into antisemitism and forced political leaders to newly articulate their position on the Middle East — long a thorny issue for Labour.

Starmer’s stance on the war has been closely aligned with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s and President Biden’s. He supports a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. He has backed Israel’s right to defend itself. He has called for the return of hostages, aid for Gaza and adherence to international law.

But he was criticized — within Labour and outside of it — for being slow to shift from “humanitarian pause” to “cease-fire that lasts” to “immediate cease-fire.” And he took heat for an interview comment that seemed to suggest that Israel had the right to cut off power and water to Palestinians. (The party said he had been responding to an earlier question about Israel’s right to defend itself.)

Starmer quelled a revolt within Labour, but not before 10 senior party lawmakers quit their policy roles and a collection of local government figures resigned in protest. Labour’s stance on the war was also blamed for losing the party votes in May’s local elections in areas with large Muslim populations.

A general election vote intention survey by the group More in Common showed that Labour has maintained a comfortable lead in districts with significant Muslim populations, though support for smaller alternative parties has been rising.

Some critics say Starmer risks making Muslim voters feel alienated, as Jewish voters felt under Corbyn’s Labour.

Before he became party leader in 2015, Corbyn was a long-serving, almost-fringe-left backbencher from a liberal north London constituency. He was a staunch supporter of Palestinian rights. He once called Hamas and Hezbollah his “friends.”

After he rose to power, British newspapers revealed that Corbyn hosted a 2010 panel where Israelis were compared to Nazis. In 2012, he defended a London mural that appeared to depict Jewish bankers playing monopoly on a board balanced on the bent backs of the workers.

Under Corbyn, the party’s refusal to fully adopt the widely accepted definition of antisemitism promulgated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance was a last straw for many Jewish voters. Labour resisted the idea that it may be antisemitic to compare contemporary Israeli policies to those of the Nazis or to claim that Israel’s existence is a racist endeavor.

Adam Langleben, director of the pro-Labour think tank Progressive Britain, describes himself as a leftist, dovish Zionist. He said that at party meetings five years ago, he felt targeted. “It didn’t matter the subject, they tried to sideline you. There was a distrust of Jews.”

Russell Langer, public affairs director for the Jewish Leadership Council, said that Labour under Corbyn were the darkest days, and that the crash in Jewish support for it was “unprecedented.”

Langer said Jewish voters not only withdrew their support from Labour then — but feared the party’s rise.

“It was existential,” he said.

A 2020 investigation by Equality and Human Rights Commission found “serious failings in leadership and an inadequate process for handling antisemitism complaints across the Labour Party.”

Corbyn — by then the party’s former leader — denied the report’s conclusions. He said the problems had been “dramatically overstated” by opponents, who had weaponized the issue to tear down the left.

It was those comments from Corbyn, which ran counter to messaging from Starmer, that precipitated his suspension. The issue of antisemitism — and his colossal defeat to Boris Johnson in the 2019 election — did Corbyn in.

Although Starmer worked under Corbyn, he has distanced himself from him and his policies. In this campaign, Starmer promoted a “changed Labour Party.”

Langer said he detected in shift in positions while attending focus groups of Jewish voters, who were not talking about Labour and antisemitism but housing, the cost of living, the wait times for the National Health Service.

“Their focus was like the rest of the country,” he said.



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