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How British Jews vote and why they vote this way

A leaning towards the conservative side of the British political spectrum has been a factor in Jewish voting patterns for at least a quarter of a century

Dr Daniel Staetsky

Many British Jews today support the Conservative party – their political predisposition tends to be centre-right – and this leaning towards the conservative side of the British political spectrum has been the case for some time now, a quarter of a century at least. A JPR study of British Jewish political attitudes conducted in the mid-1990s demonstrated that 45% of British Jews said that they would vote for the Conservative Party at that time, 41% for the Labour Party, and 14% for the Liberal Democrats. Viewed simply, these results show near parity in Jewish people’s preferences for Conservative and Labour, but when contrasted with the views of the general UK population at the time – 29% support for the Conservatives and 57% for Labour – it can be seen in a rather different light. This was long before any controversies about anti-Zionism or antisemitism at the heart of the Labour Party.

Today, support for the Conservative Party among British Jews is far more pronounced: in a May 2016 Survation poll, when the Labour Party was led by Jeremy Corbyn, 67% of British Jews declared their intention to vote for the Conservatives. Corbyn’s ascent to the leadership of the Labour Party signified a very considerable swing to the left with respect to various aspects of the Labour political platform, with his stance on the Arab-Israel conflict being just one example. Labour’s anti-Zionism, which at times seemed to blend with traditional antisemitism, just as Soviet anti-Zionism had done in the past – was, and still is, deeply concerning to many British Jews. As a result, the overwhelming support for the Conservatives among British Jews in 2016 was sometimes interpreted as a new phenomenon – an anti-Corbyn, anti-anti-Zionist vote of sorts. But this is not strictly accurate.

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Even before the rise of Corbyn, British Jewish support for the Labour Party was limited. The same Survation poll established that in the May 2015 UK general election, 64% of Jews voted for the Conservatives, compared with just 15% for the Labour Party, led at the time by Ed Miliband, a Jew and the son of a Marxist academic. So, the shift away from the Labour Party by Jews had already happened, evidently, before Jeremy Corbyn. Two lessons follow. First, British Jews are unlikely to develop a strong preference for the Labour Party if and when Jeremy Corbyn is replaced. Second, should a general election occur in the UK soon, British Jews are very likely to vote in large proportions for the Conservatives, as they have been doing for a while, and not simply as an anti-Corbyn gesture, as some have suggested.

Why is this so? A high proportion of Jews today are middle class, working in professional occupations. As is the case with most people, their socioeconomic status drives their voting patterns to a significant extent. So, the old association between Jews and left-wing politics in the UK largely belongs to the past, when the majority of Jews in the country – many of them new immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe and their children – were working or lower-middle class. That began to change in the second half of the twentieth century. Increasing numbers of Jews moved into professional occupations and became more affluent, and, as a result, started to shift their political preferences. As William Rubinstein noted already in his 1982 book, The Left, the Right and the Jews, “Since 1945… the formerly depressed eastern European migrants have moved as a whole into the upper-middle class and into the elites of most Western nations… The general rise of Western Jewry to elite status has resulted in a realignment of the allies and enemies of Jews, with the traditional ‘right’ and ‘left’ changing places in their regard for Jews and their interests.”

That shift has continued to this day, exacerbated further by the Corbyn effect, but driven fundamentally by socioeconomic changes in the Jewish population.

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Dr Daniel Staetsky

Senior Research Fellow and Director of JPR's European Demography Unit

Dr Daniel Staetsky

Senior Research Fellow and Director of JPR's European Demography Unit

Daniel holds a PhD in Social Statistics and Demography from the University of Southampton and a Master’s degree in Population Studies from the Hebrew University...

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