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Friday May 18, 2001

U.K. Jewish vote undergoes shift as Labor modifies its Israel stance

Jewish Telegraphic Agency

LONDON -- Prime Minister Tony Blair has announced that Britain's next parliamentary elections will take place June 7, but as campaigning begins in earnest, no party is chasing the Jewish vote.

The reason is simple: There isn't one in Britain.

"There is no reason to believe there will be a Jewish vote in this election," said Ivor Crewe, a political scientist and vice-chancellor of the University of Essex. "They vote like other British citizens."

That hasn't always been the case.

From the 1940s until the 1970s, Jews overwhelmingly supported the left-of-center Labor Party.

"They were demographically poor, and looking for political reform and emancipation," said Daniel Finkelstein, a senior analyst for the opposition Conservative Party.

There was a sharp shift to the right in the 1970s and 1980s.

Under the influence of radical leftist intellectuals, the Labor Party shifted from being pro-Israel to pro-Arab.

At the same time, the Conservative Party came under the dominance of Margaret Thatcher, who herself represented a heavily Jewish district in north London.

"It was obvious that she had huge respect for Jews," Finkelstein said. "The Conservatives became the main pro-Israel party."

The rise of Tony Blair to the head of the Labor Party changed the equation yet again.

"Blair has attacked the anti-Israelism that had existed in the Labor Party," said Jon Mendelsohn, of the Labor Friends of Israel lobby group.

"Old Labor was cowboys-and-Indians politics, picking underdogs" to support, Mendelsohn said, referring to the time before Blair rebranded his party as "New Labor" in the 1990s.

"The milieu has changed. Zionism is pervasive in New Labor. It is automatic that Blair will come to Labor Friends of Israel meetings," Mendelsohn said.

The result is that the Jewish community is now fairly evenly split between the Conservatives and Labor, with some support for the Liberal Democrats, a small third party.

Barry Kosmin, director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London, said there are two ways to look at the roughly 50-50 split among Jews.

Given that Labor has a large majority in Parliament and leads by huge margins in the polls, the Jewish community could be seen as more Conservative than the country as a whole.

But given that the Jewish community is overwhelmingly middle and upper class, it could be considered disproportionately Labor.

Jews are generally "to the left of people of the same socioeconomic group," the University of Essex's Crewe said.

Both parties have significant Jewish financial support.

For more JTA stories, go to http://www.jta.org

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