This year marks the centenary of the affiliation of the Jewish Labour Movement with the Labour Party in 1920. I know the Chief Rabbi told us not to vote for them in the last general election but Keir Starmer seems determined to clean up the party’s act, so next time we’ll presumably think again.
I’m flattered that the JLM asked me to write their history and the book will be out in the coming months.
The attitude of the House of Commons to the Jewish community was laid down by William Gladstone, four times Victorian prime minister. In a debate in 1851 about a Jewish merchant who had been unfairly pilloried in the press, Gladstone told the House “I say fearlessly whatever may be the difference of opinion in this House as to the admission of Jews to political privilege (you had to swear in as a Christian at the time), that no person would dare to stand up among us and allege his religion as a ground for mistrust or for the denial of justice, without drawing down upon himself, from all quarters of the House alike, universal scorn and indignation”. The House of Commons have been as good as Gladstone’s word.
The JLM and the Labour party grew up together. The JLM was originally an international movement called Poale Zion (The lovers of Zion). The first British branch was in Leeds in 1905. The first Jewish Labour MP you’ve never heard of; Thomas Myers, was elected MP for Spen Valley in 1919.
Labour represented the poor and, at the turn of the century, most of the British Jews were poor. They naturally tended to vote for Labour. At their peak there were 38 Jewish Labour MPs in 1966. From 1945-1970 there were only two Conservative Jewish MPs. Conservative associations didn’t seem to want Jewish candidates.
The Labour leaders approved of Zionism. Ramsay Macdonald, the first, visited Palestine in the early 1920s and reported “It is impossible for any one who saw what I saw to be too extravagant in tributes to the Jewish colonisers in Palestine. I saw what was bog being turned into cultivatable land, I saw the morass being drained and recovered.”
Future Israeli politicians knew all about London. David Ben Gurion ran an office here and Abba Eban, the future Foreign Minister, joined Poale Zion when a student in Oxford. The future Israeli Prime Minister, Moshe Shertok, visiting Britain, said at a party in London “There’s no need to stand on ceremony. I used to be a Labour member of the Stepney Borough Council.
Ramsay Macdonald was replaced as leader by Clement Attlee, whose political career had been fostered by Oscar Tobin, the Jewish leader of an East End council. Attlee was on record as saying ”The wonderful work of reconstruction undertaken by the Jews in Palestine has earned the admiration of all. In these difficult days (prewar) I should like to assure you of my sympathy.
The next Labour prime minister was Harold Wilson who was strongly pro-Israel. His book, The Chariot of Israel, was described by Roy Jenkins, his Home Secretary, as the most pro-Jewish book ever written by a non-Jew. In legal matters Wilson relied on the Attorney General, Sam Silkin, of whom he said “He was absolutely first class. His colleagues were not only working for someone who knew his way around, but all his long experience in legal matters made him formidable.”
The head of the Board of Deputies recently said of Tony Blair that he was always a friend of the Jews and staunch supporter of the State of Israel.
Jews have occupied almost every government office. As Disraeli was always known as a Jew, we’ve nearly had a prime minister. You don’t have to hold a major post, though, to make a real difference as an MP. There have been nearly 20 Private Members bills sponsored by Jewish MPs. Among others, Sidney Silverman fought to get capital punishment abolished in 1964, Barnett Stross campaigned for years to get compensation for miners who contracted pneumoconiosis underground and Lord Goodman achieved legislation to get free wheelchairs and motorised vehicles for the disabled. The government has provided three million over the years.
As the community became more middle class, more Jewish Conservative MPs were elected and, under Margaret Thatcher, an incredible five made it to the Cabinet; Leon Brittan, Keith Joseph, Nigel Lawson, Malcolm Rifkind and David Young. Margaret Thatcher’s right hand man, Willie Whitelaw, once said that there were more Old Estonians in the Cabinet than Old Etonians.
There are only a few Jewish Labour MPs now. We have more representatives in the House of Lords. Overall, it shows the benefit you get from allowing immigrants into the country. One of Churchill’s military advisers was asked how on earth we had managed to win the Second World War. He explained “our German scientists were better than their German scientists.” We’ve done our bit.
My politics? I’m the last of the Whigs. Vote for Lord Melbourne, I say.