In the latest remarkable Western democracy election upset, the British Conservative party, which expected — and was expected — to gain seats in the U.K.’s recent vote, ended up losing them.
Last week’s vote left British Prime Minister Theresa May, who went into the election with a 20-point lead in most polls and with her party holding a majority of seats in the 650-seat House of Commons, the lower house of Parliament, with only 319 seats. That was down 12 from before the election and short of the 326 needed for the majority required to form a government. The election saw the Conservatives’ main rival, the Labour party, gain 29 seats, raising its number to 261.
A “hung Parliament,” where no single party holds a majority of seats, is historically rare. There have only been five since 1900. Prime Minister May, who had, over-optimistically, it is now clear, called for the elections three years early, said on Friday that she intends to form a governing coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, which won 10 seats.
There can be little doubt that the election represented a setback for the Conservative party, though its leader’s lack of effective campaigning, not necessarily her policies, was likely the main culprit for the party’s losses. As Robert Worcester, the founder of a polling and research organization, observed: “May is a policy politician; she does a very good job in office, and she is a lousy campaigner.”
And there can be little doubt, too, that Labour’s gains have given that party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, newfound political cachet. Mr. Corbyn was detested not only among Conservative voters but even among elements of his own party. He was perceived as weak on defense and security, shaky on economic management, passionate about places like Venezuela and Nicaragua; and he expresses strong sympathies for the Irish Republican Army. Now, however, he has emerged as a force to contend with.
Contemporary British politics are, as the other-side-of-the-pond populace are wont to say, a sticky wicket. That is to say, things are complicated.
Mrs. May, while she was personally against Britain’s exit from the European Union, or Brexit, in the June 2016 referendum, promised voters that she would honor the results of the referendum, using her reputation for toughness “to get the best deal for Britain.” Her status as an effective negotiator of terms with the E.U. is now in jeopardy.
With regard to Jewish issues, Mrs. May has been a stalwart friend of British Jewry, and clear-headed on the topic of Israel. Mr. Corbyn, although personally acquainted with Jewish community leaders and having never evidenced any personal animus for Jews, is a far-left politician with pro-Palestinian sympathies who, critics say, has met with members of terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas (even once calling them “our friends”) and who has failed to address hate speech against Jews by his supporters. Such concerns were hardly assuaged by the fact that the white nationalist neo-Nazi website, The Daily Stormer, endorsed Mr. Corbyn.
And yet, Labour is the party not only traditionally favored by many British Jews but whose domestic policies, like its emphasis on a variety of social services, line up more neatly with the economic needs of the country’s chareidi Jewish population.
Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, a respected spokesperson for the British chareidi community, has jocularly compared his community’s voting Conservative to “chickens voting for kapparos.” But, he explains, many committed Jews, in the U.K. no less than here in the U.S., vote their consciences over their self-interests.
Although he is personally a Labour supporter, Rabbi Pinter readily acknowledges the unpleasantness of the party’s far-left wing, and the overt anti-Semitism among many of its members; he has often expressed those concerns to responsible members of the party. Moreover, while he enjoys a cordial relationship with Mr. Corbyn and does not consider him anything akin to an anti-Semite, he worries about the “normalization” of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiments among some members of the British Parliament.
The foreseeable future doesn’t include any clear ascendance of Labour’s radical left wing, or even the party’s obtaining a majority in Parliament and a Corbyn Prime Ministership. But with the current geopolitical climate in which hostility to Israel is acceptable, even stylish, and with Labour MPs who reject racism but embrace anti-Semitism, concerns about how things will unfold in Britain are, unfortunately, not out of place.