British elections 2019: A guide for the [Jewish] perplexed

From the pre-election polls until the actual election, significant changes are possible. And under Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party has been steadily rising in the polls, despite all the reasons he poses a danger to Jews and the UK itself.

Daniel Pinner

OpEds Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn
Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn

With all eyes the world over – and all the more so Jewish eyes – on the impending elections in the United Kingdom this coming Thursday (elections in the UK are traditionally held on Thursdays), with the massive worries that the Jewish community in Britain, indeed Jews the world over, have about a possible Labour Party victory, and Jeremy Corbyn subsequently becoming Prime Minister of the UK, a brief explanation of the British electoral system, and how Corbyn might – just might – become Prime Minister seems in order.

The UK electoral system is a representative democracy and a constitutional monarchy. The country is currently divided into 650 constituencies (the exact number varies from time to time with population shifts), each with very roughly similar numbers of voters: the vast majority of these constituencies contain between 60,000 and 90,000 voters.

Hence the geographical areas covered by these constituencies varies wildly: in the densely-populated areas of London, Manchester, and eastern Yorkshire (on England’s north-east coast), for example, the constituencies are geographically far smaller than in the sparsely-populated rural areas of Wales, northern England, and the highlands of Scotland.

Each constituency elects one representative to the Parliament in Westminster.

There is no fixed number, and no limit, to the number of candidates who stand in any given constituency. On Thursday, the Conservative Party will field candidates in 635 constituencies, Labour in 631, the Liberal Democrats in 610, and the Greens in 497.

There are several small parties who only field candidates in only a few constituencies – the Animal Welfare Party, the English Democrats, the British National Party, the Justice & Anti-Corruption Party, and several others, who are highly unlikely to get any candidates into Parliament.

And then there are regional parties:

The Scottish National Party (SNP) is contesting all 59 constituencies in Scotland. Plaid Cymru (Party of Wales) is contesting 36 out of 40 seats in Wales. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) - Northern Ireland, broadly Protestant, pro-British, Right-wing - is contesting 17 out of 18 seats in Northern Ireland; Sinn Féin (also Northern Ireland, the political wing of the IRA, broadly Catholic, anti-British, Left-wing, arguably Marxist-Leninist) is contesting 15 seats.

Of these regional parties, the SNP is a natural ally of Labour – somewhere between Left-wing and extreme Left, and viciously anti-Israel. The DUP is a natural ally of Tory – Right-wing and staunchly pro-Israel.

Sinn Féin might be an interesting party to watch after the elections: in the past, their elected members have never taken their seats in Parliament, in protest against British rule over Northern Ireland. But Jeremy Corbyn has been consorting with IRA terrorists for decades; so in the event of a hung Parliament, in which Sinn Féin can swing the balance, it is just conceivable that they might break with tradition and take their seats, in order to get Corbyn into the Prime Minister’s office.

Each voter votes for one candidate in his or her constituency. This means that someone living, for example, in a constituency in which the Conservatives are not fielding a candidate cannot vote Conservative.

The UK uses the first-past-the-post system; this means that whichever candidate receives the highest number of votes in any given constituency becomes that constituency’s representative to Parliament.

The advantage to this system is that every single voter has his or her personal representative to Parliament, someone who is personally answerable to the individual voter, in the corridors of power.

In the UK, a party can receive 20% of the popular vote, even 45% of the popular vote, but if that 20% or more is distributed evenly throughout the country, then if they do not achieve a plurality in any single constituency, they will end up with zero representation in parliament.
The disadvantage, of course, is that the British Parliament is far less a reflection of the will of the people than the Israeli Knesset, which is pure proportional representation. In Israel, a party which receives, for example, 20% of the popular vote receives 20% of seats in the Knesset; in the UK, a party can receive 20% of the popular vote, even 45% of the popular vote, but if that 20% or more is distributed evenly throughout the country, then if they do not achieve a plurality in any single constituency, they will end up with zero representation in parliament.

Another consequence of constituency voting is the two-party system, that is to say, almost invariably one of the two major parties, Conservative or Labour, wins an absolute majority of seats in the House, and therefore governs the country alone. This is unlike the Israeli system of proportional representation, in which no party has ever received more than 50% of seats in the Knesset, and therefore every government in Israeli history has been a coalition.

The 2010 election in Britain resulted in a “hung Parliament”, i.e. no party received a majority: the Conservatives were just 20 seats short of an absolute majority, and subsequently formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. This coalition, which lasted until the next general election in 2015, was the only coalition government in Britain since the Second World War.

And now, as Britain is just days away from another election, it is unclear which party will win.

Last election, two-and-a-half years ago, the Conservatives received 317 seats, 13 fewer than before the elections; Labour received 262, 30 more than before the elections. Labour was still far behind the Tory party, but somehow, under Jeremy Corbyn, had reduced the Conservative majority from 98 seats to just 55.

And since then, in spite of all the ghastly revelations of the Labour Party’s massive anti-Semitism, Corbyn’s personal ties to Islamic and IRA terrorists, in spite of an economic plan which seems designed to ruin Britain, in spite of an unprecedented warning from a former head of MI6 that Corbyn is a danger to national security who cannot be trusted with defending the country  – in spite of all this, Corbyn has managed to close the gap even more:

Almost a year ago, on January 7, a YouGov poll gave Labour 35% and Conservative 41%; and eleven days later, an Opinium poll gave Conservative 37% and Labour 40%.

By mid-year, both Conservative and Labour had plummeted in the polls, with the Lib-Dems and Brexit Party gaining the most: on June 6, just half-a-year ago, YouGov gave 26% to the Brexit Party, 20% each to Labour and Lib-Dem, and just 18% to Tory.

A day later, a BMG poll gave 27% to Labour, 26% to Conservative, 18% to Brexit, and 17% to Lib-Dems.

By mid-year, all the polling companies showed Labour ahead of Conservative.

This changed when Boris Johnson became head of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister at the end of July: the Conservatives immediately recovered their lead, and all the polls since then have indicated a Conservative majority.

This majority, however, is really rather small: a ComRes poll on December 5 indicated a 41% to 33% lead; the next day a YouGov poll showed a 43% to 33% lead, and a Panelbase poll showed a 43% to 34% lead. That is to say, Conservative leads Labour by 10% or less.

And this lead can easily shrink. “A week is a long time in politics”, said Prime Minister Harold Wilson half-a-century ago. Indeed it is; and from these polls until the actual election, significant changes are possible. And after all, under Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party has been steadily rising in the polls.

As political commentator Stephen Bush recently headlined an article in the New Statesman, “We are a normal-sized polling-error away from a Labour government”.

Add to this another factor:

In the last year, 3.9 million new voters have been added to the electoral roll, two-thirds of them 35 or younger. This age-group is Labour’s biggest electoral base: among university students, Labour leads Conservative by 72% to 8%.

As we noted earlier, each constituency elects a representative to Westminster on the first-past-the-post system. Which means that in any constituency in which the Right-wing vote is split between Tory and the Brexit Party, or between Tory and the Lib-Dems, the Labour candidate could well come out ahead with a plurality.

Britain has, for more than a century, been the one of the world’s stablest two-party systems. And it is precisely the Brexit party and the Lib-Dems who have shaken that status quo, morphing this coming election into a four-party race.

The winner of this new constellation could well be Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

This is not because Labour will win a majority of the popular vote; they won’t. But if the Right-wing vote is split, then Conservative could well lose their majority, leaving a Labour-led coalition with the SNP, or the Greens, or even Sinn Féin, or any combination of these, to form the new Government.

A major factor in Thursday’s election is tactical voting – a new phenomenon in British politics. The major parties are asking their supporters to vote not necessarily for their candidates, but for whichever candidate is likeliest to defeat the opposition.

Given the current political landscape, this makes the outcome more unpredictable. But it definitely works more to Labour’s advantage than to Conservative’s.

One final factor:

Of the UK’s 650 constituencies, in just five of them more than 10% of the electorate self-identify as Jews according to the 2011 Census (four in north London, one in Greater Manchester).

By contrast, Muslims make up more than 10% of the electorate in 83 constituencies (and more than 20% in 26 of those). In a closely-contested election, as this Thursday’s will be, those Muslim voters can well determine the outcome.

With opinion polls consistently showing that anti-Semitic prejudice among Muslims in the UK is some three times or more higher than in the general population, it is quite possible that Labour’s antipathy to Jews is an asset, not a hindrance.

By Friday morning, we will know.