British voters open to a Jewish prime minister — but some are more welcoming than others

In this post, Professor Tim Bale of QMUL’s School of Politics and International Relations, discusses the findings of new polling data on attitudes to Jewish political leaders. The data is based on research from Professor Bale’s forthcoming book: Five Year Mission: The Labour Party under Ed Miliband.

The horrific murder of four Jewish men in a Paris supermarket ago has understandably provoked a debate about levels of anti-Semitism throughout Europe, including, of course, the UK. According to some campaigning organisations things aren’t good and may be getting worse.

But what, if any, are the electoral implications’ As part of my research on the Labour Party , I commissioned the polling company YouGov to find out how British voters would feel about a Jewish politician leading a political party and making it into Number 10.

This might well happen sooner than many voters realise. Admittedly, the chances of Labour winning a comfortable overall majority look vanishingly small right now. Labour could, however, emerge as the largest party or finish just a handful of seats behind the Conservatives. In that case, depending on the choices made by other parties, Ed Miliband could become Britain’s first Jewish prime minister - or, depending on how we treat Benjamin Disraeli , at least the first since 1880.

In fact, only a third of UK voters actually know the Labour leader is Jewish. And those planning to vote Labour are less aware of it than those planning to vote for the Conservatives, the Lib Dems or Ukip.

Even if more people did know Miliband (or any other party leader) was Jewish, it seems unlikely that it would have much impact. The vast majority of respondents - some 83 per cent - said that it would make no difference to their voting intentions.

There were, however, some differences between the supporters of the four parties under consideration. Some 13 per cent of Ukip voters said they would be less likely to vote for a party with a Jewish leader. Only seven per cent of Conservative voters said the same. For the Liberal Democrat voters, the figure stood at six per cent and for Labour four per cent.

And Ukip voters were less likely to see a Jewish prime minister as "equally acceptable" as a prime minister from another faith. Only 48 per cent of those intending to vote Ukip agreed when asked, which compared with 62 per cent of voters in general. The highest level of agreement came from Lib Dem and Labour supporters, at 73 per cent and 72 per cent. Conservative supporters were not far behind at 65 per cent.

Beyond the ballot

As for anti-Semitism more generally, the picture is far from perfect but perhaps not as worrying as it is in other countries in Europe. Just 10 per cent of all respondents agreed with the statement that "Jews have too much influence in this country" - although once again Ukip supporters stood out somewhat. Some 18 per cent of them agreed with this statement, compared to nine per cent of those planning to vote Conservative, 10 per cent of those planning to vote Labour and five per cent of those planning to vote Lib Dem.

It is also worth noting that 23 per cent of UKIP supporters disagreed with the statement. But that compared to 38 per cent of Conservative supporters, 44 per cent of Labour supporters and 47 per cent of Lib Dem supporters.

While it’s important not to exaggerate them, the differences between supporters of different parties - or rather the supporters of one party and the rest - are quite striking.

Yet they appear to exist irrespective of anything the parties themselves have said and done. While Ukip has had the odd problem with a candidate or two in this respect, and there are doubts about some of its allies in the European Parliament, there is nothing whatsoever in Ukip’s rhetoric or policies that could conceivably be labelled anti-Semitic.

While political leaders clearly have some responsibility for those who stand as candidates for, or who simply join, their parties, they can hardly be held responsible for the opinions, however controversial or unsavoury, of those who choose to vote for them.

Whether leaders should distance themselves from such people by asserting that they don’t want their votes is another matter: in Ukip’s case they constitute only a small minority at a time when the party is recruiting way beyond those who see themselves as right-wingers.

Getting better

Ultimately, these differences between voters shouldn’t, perhaps, be allowed to obscure the wider picture, which actually doesn’t look too bleak - especially if one takes change over time into account.

In January 2004, when British voters were presented with the same statement about Jews having too much influence, 18 per cent, rather than today’s 10 per cent, agreed. Back then, it was the Conservative rather than the Labour Party which was led by a Jew - Michael Howard. Asked today whether such a politician would make an equally acceptable prime minister as a member of another faith, six out of ten say yes. In 2004, it was only five out of ten. And now only six per cent actively say no. Back then it was 18 per cent. This is surely progress - albeit slower than many would like.