Labour catches the mood in London
By Brian Durrans
Nearly 5% more Londoners cast their votes on 8 June than did so in 2015: a bigger increase than anywhere else in England and nearly twice the percentage increase that brought the UK turnout to the highest level since 1997. In London as elsewhere, there was a clear sense that this election mattered.
LONDON’S ‘BREXIT’ FACTOR?
In last year’s referendum, Londoners voted largely to remain in the EU. By respecting the Brexit vote and building unity across it, Jeremy Corbyn has evidently caught the popular mood and outmanoeuvred Labour’s ‘Remoaner’ MPs, mainly critics of the leadership, who are now increasingly out of touch with the party’s expanded membership and reduced to sterile gestures.
Nothing better illustrates the maturity of London’s electorate compared with some pro-Remain MPs than the Labour surge that re-elected prominent Labour Leave MP Kate Hoey in Vauxhall, even though Lambeth, where her constituency is located, returned London’s highest Remain vote in the referendum. Many Corbyn-sceptic Remain MPs in constituencies that voted that way last year told their voters this year how passionately they cared about local issues and the EU cause, and said as little as possible about Labour’s manifesto or leader, at least until, on June 9th, it became expedient to do so. [Note 1]
In retrospect, there was no clear way of accounting for which way the votes had gone, except that Labour’s principled UK-wide campaign benefited both Remain and Leave constituencies and MPs/candidates almost equally well. [Note 2] Theresa May had claimed that the election was about Brexit, on which basis she hoped to win a hundred-seat majority. It was not and her hopes were dashed.
The swing to Labour in London was more than twice the increased turnout and cannot therefore be explained by the support of new voters or previous abstainers alone. Conservative and Lib Dem shares barely changed (Conservatives down 1.7%, Lib Dem up 1.1%). Although it seems clear that many Green and some Lib Dem votes came Labour’s way, and that the Conservatives were better at collecting former UKIP votes, there are too many exceptions and uncertainties to cover in a short article.
The new political map of London features a fat and rather wonky central red cross of Labour constituencies against four blue quadrants of less crowded Tory strongholds out towards the corners. This corresponds to a tally of 49 seats (4 gains) to Labour, 21 (1 gain, 6 losses) to the Conservatives and 3 (2 gains) to the Lib Dems. [Note 3]
What this map doesn’t show is that increased support for London Labour not only gained new seats and raised majorities where it retained those already held, but also, with only two exceptions, the Labour surge improved the party’s vote share even where another candidate won, especially when it was a Conservative: see table below.
Total seats (won/held)
Average swing to Labour
June 2017: Average vote swing to Labour in London by % over 2015 according to outcome.
In the two exceptions, Labour came third in constituencies it had little chance of winning, where the Conservative-Liberal Democrat contest involved at least one controversial personality and consequent high-profile attention. In Richmond Park, where the Conservative and unsuccessful mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith scraped home, Labour’s first-time parliamentary candidate, who had no local base, dropped 3.2% of Labour’s previous vote. In nearby Twickenham, where Liberal Democrat and former Cameron-Clegg coalition minister Vince Cable beat the Conservative, the Labour candidate – another first-time contestant who was also a local councillor - scored 2.3% fewer votes than the previous Labour candidate managed two years ago.
As averages often do, the average percentage increases in the Labour vote between 2015-June 2017, shown in the table, mask some interesting variations. The actual increases per constituency are by no means evenly spread between the highest and lowest, but instead cluster into two groups.
Labour candidates did well in almost all London constituencies where there was a Conservative winner, but they did especially well in 17 of them where the average vote swing to Labour was 10.75% - less than 1% short of the average swing where Labour actually won.
Leaving aside Richmond Park and Twickenham, already discussed, and two other Liberal Democrat wins, the two worst results for London Labour were in the northwest constituencies of Finchley and Golders Green (+4.1%) and Hendon (+4.5%). These modest swings were less than half those of the average upswing in the top 17 constituencies where Labour lost, although in both cases the Conservative majorities were much reduced. If Labour’s poor showing in Richmond and Twickenham can be explained as the result of unusual local factors, this also seems to be the case in Finchley and Golders Green, and in Hendon.
At over 20%, Finchley and Golders Green has the largest proportion of Jewish residents of any constituency in the UK; in Hendon, the proportion is only a little lower at 17%. [Note 4] Several commentators, apparently accepting the mainstream media allegation that ‘Labour has a problem with anti-Semitism’, concluded that it would be very surprising if Labour had won in Finchley and Golders Green or in Harrow, despite the clear refutation of this allegation by the Chakrabarti Report [Note 5] and reiteration of the party’s clear and principled position on this and all other forms of racism by Jeremy Corbyn and others in the Labour leadership.
Although there was still criticism of Corbyn for having shared a platform in the past with supporters of Palestinian rights whom those advocating for Israel call ‘terrorists’ (a charge ably rebutted by the Chakrabarti Report and by Jeremy Corbyn himself), it is notable that in criticism of the Labour leader during the 2017 election campaign, by the mainstream media and by his political opponents inside and outside the Labour Party, the issue of Israel/Palestine took second place to (and was conflated with) ‘anti-Semitism’. For example, in its election night blog as the results came in, the Jewish Chronicle consistently referred to ‘anti-Semitism’ rather than to criticism of Israel. [Note 6]
It is therefore worth recollecting an article in the Spectator on 18 April 2015 – a month before the previous general election – in which political journalist Robert Philpot declared that Labour had already lost the ‘Jewish vote’ because its (Jewish) leader, Ed Miliband, showed sympathy for Palestinians and especially because he criticised Israel’s attack on Gaza in ‘Operation Protective Edge’. [Note 7]
At that time, there were no ‘useful idiots’ making off-the-cuff remarks that could be cited as evidence of anti-Semitic prejudice for which Miliband could then be criticised for failing to condemn or punish: the problem was simply criticism of Israel by someone who might conceivably become the UK’s next prime minister.
And that, from the point of view of Israel’s supporters, is still the problem, only now in 2017, the tactic has been first to conflate criticism of Israel or support for Palestine with anti-Semitism and then to demand action against ‘anti-Semitism’ in this new, distorted, definition. [Note 8]
Jeremy Newmark, Labour’s June 2017 candidate for Finchley and Golders Green, and Mike Katz, its candidate for Hendon, are respectively National Movement Chair and Vice-Chair of the ‘Jewish Labour Movement’ (JLM). The JLM not only promotes Israel’s interests in the Labour Party and supports the pro-apartheid Israeli Labor Party, [Note 9] but its relationship to dubious activities by the Israeli Embassy in London was the subject of an investigative report broadcast in four gripping episodes by Al-Jazeera in January 2017. [Note 10]
Given their own criticism of Labour’s leadership as (at best) ‘soft on anti-Semitism’, it is scarcely surprising that their candidacies were opposed by some in their constituencies’ Jewish communities who preferred unambiguously pro-Israel Conservatives; but it is not hard to see that a main incentive in standing was to keep attention focused on alleged ‘anti-Semitism’.
Labour’s generally strong performance gives a context in which to understand these two sets of anomalies.
First, the two failures in Richmond Park and Twickenham were rare exceptions to the ‘two-horse race’ of Labour versus Conservative, a clarification of the political stakes in which Labour can retrieve the trust of the working class and its allies as they exist in contemporary Britain. A better result in both constituencies could have been secured if the Labour candidate had had strong local support and a track-record of campaigning on issues that affect key sections of the community, as reflected in the manifesto.
Second, the lessons of the two low swings in Finchley and Golders Green and Hendon are about attempts to delegitimise Labour. Israel’s cheerleaders in the JLM seem to be running out of options. When, with massive pro-Tory media help, Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents blast him as a wimp or terrorist sympathiser, or find him guilty by association with people they don’t like, he refutes the charges with clear arguments and quiet dignity, and his approval ratings improve. Given that the Conservative party and its candidates in these two constituencies agreed with the ‘JLM’ on Israel and on the idea that Labour has an ‘anti-Semitism’ problem, and given that it would be impossible to say which Labour votes were cast for the party and which for the candidate, we might charitably assume that the two ‘JLM’ candidates were above all committed to Labour’s manifesto offers of anti-austerity and social renewal.
But criticism of the party (that is, its leadership) is seldom far behind. After the count when Conservative Mike Freer was returned as MP for Finchley and Golders Green, Newmark spuriously claims electoral support for his position within Labour. Newmark said:
“To reduce Freer’s majority by such a margin is a signal that key messages of my campaign that people in Finchley and Golders Green are worried about the politics of resentment and intolerance that comes as part and parcel of the Brexit debate. That people here want to protect local schools and invest in world-class education.
I will continue to fight racism and anti-Semitism in society, in Parliament and, if necessary, in my own party; the results across Barnet indicate that many people think it is.” [Note 11]
There are two strange things in that last paragraph. One is that caveat “if necessary”. If there really is an anti-Semitism problem in the Labour Party, how could he not find it necessary to fight it? On the other hand, he does not say why people apparently critical of Labour’s alleged ‘anti-Semitism’ should bother to vote for the party at all in preference to the Conservatives.
At any rate, whatever the local electorate made of all this, in all their variety of views and religious affiliation, most Labour voters across London and across the UK, who can scarcely not have heard criticism that Labour and its leader are anti-Semitic or spineless or terrorist sympathisers, or all three, do not appear convinced.
- Opinion surveyors YouGov judge that, in the UK as a whole, voting patterns in the EU referendum didn’t much affect those in the general election: https://yougov.co.uk/news/2017/06/22/how-did-2015-voters-cast-their-ballot-2017-general/. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, I assume here that the same also applies to London.
- http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-7979, p.32. The main sources for these figures and those set out in Table 1 below are the cartogram and list of constituencies given in the Sunday Times on 11 June 2017 (p.17) and www.bbc.com/news/politics/constituencies.
- http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/2015guide/finchleyandgoldersgreen/; http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/2015guide/hendon/.
- http://www.aljazeera.com/investigations/thelobby/. The programmes also prompted a call for an independent enquiry in the UK: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/israeli-embassy-alan-duncan-palestine-spying-subversion-labour-a7515956.html.
- http://jewishnews.timesofisrael.com/mike-freer-and-matthew-offord-retain-two-seats-with-largest-jewish-communities/. Emphasis added. Barnet is the local borough in which this constituency is located. For more tendentious claims, and also some revealing admissions of uncertainty, about what votes ‘mean’ and whose votes they are, see the Jewish Chronicle blog referenced at Note 6, especially (you have to scroll down for these) the ramshackle musings of Lee Harpin.