LONDON — A large chunk of Britain’s Jewish community breathed a sigh of relief on May 8, when David Cameron secured a second five-year term as prime minister. The Conservative’s win of an outright majority in the House of Commons shocked the nation, as nearly all pre-election polls suggested that the Labour party led by Ed Milliband and the Conservatives, who have ruled in coalition with the Liberal Democrats for the last five years, were running neck-and-neck.
Unlike in America, where a majority of Jews regularly vote for Democratic candidates, Jews in the United Kingdom are less likely to follow one particular party.
Prior to the election, nearly 70 percent of British Jewish voters said that they would vote Conservative, according to a poll conducted in April by Britain’s main Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle. Only 22 percent of respondents said they would cast their vote for Labour. Statistics indicating how the Jewish community actually voted are not yet available.
For Jewish voters who place a strong emphasis on a candidate’s support for Israel as well as on other issues that affect the community, Cameron was the obvious choice. With him now in power for the next five years, Britain’s Jews can expect his support for traditional Jewish causes to continue, analysts predict.
“We are particularly delighted that the vast majority of those in the prime minister’s newly formed cabinet are longstanding friends of Israel,” said James Gurd, political director of the lobby group Conservative Friends of Israel.
It’s not only on Israel that Cameron won praise from the Jewish community. His government has been equally supportive of the Jewish community’s domestic concerns. After the recent terror attacks in Paris, Home Secretary Theresa May spoke out strongly against anti-Semitism, saying, “We must all redouble our efforts to wipe out anti-Semitism here in the United Kingdom.”
Under her watch, the government increased security funding for Jewish communal institutions.
Over the last five years, the government has also defended kosher animal slaughter, known as shechita, which has increasingly come under fire from animal rights activists, and supported funding for “faith schools,” a category which includes many Jewish institutions.
The Conservative record stood in contrast to Miliband’s perceived hostility toward Israel. Miliband, who is Jewish, spoke out strongly against Israel during the conflict in Gaza last summer.
Calling Israel’s actions “unacceptable and unjustifiable,” he criticized the Cameron for his “silence on the killing of innocent Palestinian civilians caused by Israel’s military action.” The comments, which were perceived by some as political posturing, led many Jews to feel that he didn’t appreciate Israel’s challenges and pushed away potential voters as well as long-time Labour supporters.
“I feel I don’t recognize the party of principle and serious government that I knocked on doors and delivered leaflets for. It has let me down,” wrote the former director of the lobbying group Labour Friends of Israel, Kate Bearman, in a piece published in the Chronicle in August. “I simply don’t think Labour is fit to govern when its leadership issues simplistic statements that are at odds with the realities Israel faces.”
Miliband further alienated Jewish voters in the fall with his support for a symbolic House of Commons vote recognizing a Palestinian state.
“The ultimate irony is that here’s a Jewish leader who the Jews couldn’t bring themselves to vote for,” said David Mencer, a political consultant and former head of Labour Friends of Israel. “It didn’t have to be that way. He chose this.”
After the election, Miliband resigned from his party chairmanship.
Other U.K. political parties have been even more vocal in their opposition to Israeli policies and actions. The Green Party supports a cultural boycott of Israel. The centrist Liberal Democrat party came under fire from Jewish groups for failing to discipline MP David Ward, who regularly made provocative statements against Israel, including one tweet in July that read: “The big question is — if I lived in Gaza would I fire a rocket? — probably yes.” The third largest party in parliament, the Scottish Nationalist Party, has voiced its support for the unilateral recognition of an independent Palestinian state.
Although the polls were too close to call for much of the campaign, the end result came as no surprise to some political veterans.
“The Jewish community holds a fascinating place in society, because if you win it over then it’s likely you will win general election,” said Mencer. “It’s what Tony Blair did in ’97 and what Cameron did in 2015. The Jewish community is aspirational, has traditional values, is socially conscious and has a belief in helping those less fortunate. If a candidate can win over the Jewish community then it’s likely that it will win the election.
“This is exactly what Cameron has done,” continued Mencer. “He has positioned his party to be center right rather than extreme right.”
Though it may be a bellwether, Britain’s Jewish community is small, numbering around 270,000, or .5 percent of the population, a fact which led Jonathan Boyd to discount the community’s power.
“Even if [Jews] were to vote as a bloc, which they do not, their capacity to influence the outcome is extremely limited,” said Boyd, executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.
That being said, in at least two swing London constituencies where Jews are concentrated, Hendon and Finchley and Golders Green, there were strong majorities for Conservative candidates despite polls predicting a dead heat. In Hendon, the Conservative candidate, Matthew Offord, won by 3,724 votes, a significant jump from the 106 that put him over the top in 2010.
In the end, it was the stark contrast between the heads of the two parties that inspired many Jews who had not previously voted to head to the polls.
“I voted Tory for both Jewish and economic reasons,” said Corinne Tapnack, a 39-year-old London resident who voted for the first time on Thursday. “I felt the Tories should stay in control of the recovery given how much progress country has made. Plus I didn’t feel Miliband portrayed himself as a friend of Israel. I didn’t feel like he would be the right person to represent the Jewish community. His tendencies didn’t lie toward supporting Israel and he made that clear.”
A native of Baltimore, freelancer Rachel Stafler lives in London.