Thursday, September 05, 2019

What It Means for Jews To Vote Tory

Daniel Sugarman has an interesting column on the prospect of UK Jews voting for the Conservative Party, simply because Jeremy Corbyn is unacceptable. What's interesting about it is that it pretty forthrightly acknowledges that Boris Johnson's Conservatives are unacceptable too -- to name just one issue, their Islamophobia is on par with Labour's antisemitism.

Sugarman frames his discussion around a Muslim colleague of his who loathes Corbyn, fully acknowledges his role in fomenting Labour's antisemitism crisis, yet indicates he might have to hold his nose and vote Labour anyway because the prospect of empowering Johnson's hatred towards his community is too awful to stomach. The premise of the column is that this logic is wholly reasonable and permissible -- it is legitimate for a Muslim voter in the UK, fully aware of (and repelled by) Labour's antisemitism, to nonetheless prioritize his or her own safety and vote against the Conservatives; and by the same token it is legitimate for a Jewish voter in the UK, fully aware of (and repelled by) the Tories's Islamophobia, to nonetheless prioritize his or her own safety and vote against Labour.

It's worth underscoring just what this logic actually implies, though. Many have thought that any British voter who votes Labour for any reason is, ipso facto, selling Jews out -- signaling that the appalling antisemitism that has followed in Corbyn's wake is unimportant or even acceptable. But Sugarman's argument means we can't accept this, anymore than we can accept that Jews voting against Corbyn and for Johnson are thereby signaling toleration for Islamophobia. People have all sorts of reasons for voting the way they do. Moreover, while Sugarman's logic sanctions Jews voting for Tories, it gives no such rationale for why anyone else should do so. After all, there is no a priori reason why a young non-Jewish, non-Muslim progressive voter should prioritize rejecting Corbyn's antisemitism over Johnson's Islamophobia. If both of those weigh equally on their conscience, then they cancel out, and then the question is whether Corbyn's Labour Party is better generally than Johnson's Conservatives -- presumably, most progressives would quite reasonably find the former to be more amenable to their interests.

True, under normal circumstances, it is fair to demand that people sacrifice certain private interests in deference to important moral considerations -- this is why the Trump voter who doesn't approve of "Build the Wall" and "Keep Muslims Out", but really, really wants a tax cut, can fairly be deemed to be racist (the failure to properly prioritize in the face of overwhelming moral necessity represents a dereliction of one's duty of care towards racialized others). But the point of Sugarman's analogy is that here there are huge moral catastrophes looming on both sides (and we haven't even mentioned Brexit yet). UK politics right now is a tragedy -- between Labour and Tory, there are no good options, or even acceptable options. It's just a choice between competing abominations. So long as one recognizes the sort of play that they're in, I don't really begrudge how they decide to act out their role.

Of course, for me this entire discussion immediately raises the question: why not LibDems? They aren't perfect, but they're unabashedly anti-Brexit and lack the institutionalized bigotry that afflicts their larger compatriots.  But while, unlike the US, the LibDems give British voters a valid third party option, Britain's first-past-the-post system nonetheless can see wild results in constituencies where more than two parties are seriously contesting. It's not out of the question that a reasonable voter might have to vote strategically, which brings us right back to where we started.

I've remarked before that the chaos in UK Labour is perhaps the only thing that's ever given me sympathy for "Never Trump" Republicans. On the one hand, the health and future of a viable, non-hateful British progressive community depends on Corbyn getting spanked. Only that can break the fever. This was one of the (many) tragedies of 2016: had Trump lost, it is at least possible -- possible -- that Republicans would have concluded that the path they were traveling was unsustainable and had a moment of reckoning. But now that Trump won, certain seals that should've never been broken have been shattered -- I'm skeptical that we will see a GOP that's even a tolerably ethical choice for decades. If Corbyn loses, maybe the spell breaks. But if he wins -- if, in spite of everything, it turns out that this brand of feverish populism and conspiracy-mongering is capable of carrying an election -- the damage could be felt for generations.

And yet: these are not normal times. It's one thing to suffer through a cycle of conservative governance. Nations survive those, as terrible as they are, and the damage they inflict, while often extensive, is rarely permanent. But thanks to Brexit, the UK is in a singular political moment -- poised to self-sabotage in an unprecedented way that could not be fixed or even seriously ameliorated next cycle. The prospect of handing over government to the Tories and allowing Boris Johnson to lead a Brexit as he sees fit is horrifying to contemplate -- it is a sacrifice that goes way beyond a few years time in the opposition.

Complicating it all is the fact that -- as much as Brexit represents the defining issue of this generation of British politics -- Jeremy Corbyn doesn't oppose Brexit. It'd be one thing to demand that voters hold their nose and vote Labour anyway to stop Brexit -- but it's far from clear that Corbyn's Labour party would actually do that. In a real sense, the two main party choices are between an Islamophobic conservative party desiring a Hard Brexit at any cost, and an antisemitic progressive party pushing for a "Soft Brexit" (or Lexit) that doesn't actually exist. Some choice.

I don't envy anyone who has to make it. Were it me, here would be my chain of voting priority:

  1. Vote LibDem, in any race where it's feasible they'll win;
  2. In races where the LibDem candidate can't feasibly win but the Labour candidate can, vote Labour if the candidate is both (a) seriously pro-Remain and (b) not antisemitic or an apologist for antisemitism in Labour (and there are -- yes, really -- plenty of Labour MPs who are not. There is a huge difference between Ruth Smeeth and Chris Williamson);
  3. If the Labour candidate fails these tests, vote Conservative if the candidate is (a) seriously pro-Remain and (b) not Islamophobic or otherwise hateful;
  4. If both the Labour and Conservative candidates fail their litmus tests, then vote for the best remaining candidate (even if they stand no chance at winning). 

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