Derek Taylor
Derek Taylor

Plus ça change – probably not plus c’est la même chose

Zionism and the British Labour party grew up together. Jewish unions supported the fledgling new party and Poele Zion, which became the modern Jewish Labour Movement had, as its main aim, a national home in Palestine which Labour supported. The kibbutz movement in Palestine was the ideal Labour structure and the Labour party wished it could come about in Britain. The Kibbutz movement was after all pure Socialism, pooling the income of the kibbutzniks and paying everybody’s bills when they came due.

Indeed, so much had the two organisations in common that in 1920 Poele Zion became affiliated to the British Labour party and remains so to this day.

Things have changed over the years though. While every Labour leader, from Ramsay Macdonald to Tony Blair supported the Jews in the Holy Land, the British community as a whole fought its way out of poverty and Margaret Thatcher was able to bring a lot of them into the Conservative party. Labour remains the party of the workers and the Jewish community has moved to the right with greater affluence.

It is to the credit of our British culture that racial hatred is considered so negative that all the political parties have supported legislation to make it illegal. There is a large majority for this because the country is happy with multiculturalism. The question is whether in the world we live in today, a largely middle-class Jewish community can be persuaded to return to their traditional support for the Labour party. Not that about 100,000 votes makes any great difference in a general election.

Of course the Jews weren’t Conservative for years. They first supported the Liberal party because it was the Liberals who lobbied for the passing of the Oath Act which enabled Jews to promise their allegiance on election on the Old Testament.

A number of them moved to the Conservatives when Disraeli was prime minister. They also fell out with Gladstone over the treatment of the Turks persecuting Christian communities in the Balkans. They were also dead against religious persecution, but the Christian communities in the Balkans behaved very badly towards their Jewish citizens. To complicate matters still further, Gladstone’s so-called Midlothian campaign, arguing against the Turks, was largely financed by Hannah Rothschild, the richest woman in Britain at the time, and she was to be married to Lord Rosebery, the future Conservative prime minister.

Only two Conservative Jews sat in parliament after the Second World War because they weren’t chosen as candidates by their local selection body. Indeed, before the war, the present Lord Winston’s uncle, Daniel Lipson,  was turned down as the prospective MP. for Cheltenahm because he was a Jew. He stood as an independent and won. He held his seat after the war as well.

On the other hand over 40 Jews sat for Labour constituencies in the 1970s. They were largely professional men and able to stand their ground in Parliament better than a lot of Labour working men. There were a lot of lawyers.

Margaret Thatcher changed all that, putting a number of new Jewish. Conservative MPs  into the Cabinet; they weren’t old-style Conservatives and she could count on their support.  The comment of the Deputy Prime Minister in her time was that the Cabinet had more Old Estonians than Old Etonians.

Now the community has apparently given up politics; the number of Jewish MPs is half their largest number. Can Keir Starmer and the Jewish Labour Movement bring them back? The Conservatives are short odds but outsiders do come in sometimes.

About the Author
Derek is an author & former editor of the Jewish Year Book