Lessons on ‘the fear factor’ from the Israeli left

In different ways both the Israeli and UK Labour parties underplayed security


Last night at Labour Conference, Left Foot Forward and BICOM hosted a fringe event discussing what the UK and Israeli Labour parties can learn from each other.

Both parties suffered devastating election defeats this year, preceded by months of genuine hope which meant many on the left were unprepared for the result.

On our panel were Israeli Labor MK Michal Biran, BICOM CEO James Sorene, and Labour-Co-Op MPs Mike Gapes and James Woodcock.

One of the things that the speakers agreed on was that the unpredictability of the result had made it all the more depressing when nothing changed. Michal Biran said that before the election in Israel the mood on the left had been buoyant, with real hope that social democracy might be around the corner.

As in the UK, the result in Israel confounded the pollsters. The ‘shy Tory’ phenomenon seen in the UK was also replicated in Israel; Biran said that amid the ‘grief’ of the result there was real confusion – noone knew any ‘normal’ people who voted for Netanyahu.

The panel discussed the idea that the polls themselves might have had an impact on the result – when it looked like Netanyahu/Cameron might actually lose, the electorate panicked.

The leaders panicked too. Netanhyahu’s now-famous pronouncement that there would never be a Palestinian state on his watch came on the eve of the election and after a series of opinion polls showing the prime minister’s Likud party falling behind the Zionist Union (a merger of the Labour Party and the centrist Hatnuah).

After his re-election, Netanyahu attempted to backtrack on the statement, which had infuriated Washington but gained him crucial votes from more right-wing parties.

James Sorene commented that frightening people is not the right way to win elections – but 2015 has shown that this is not quite true. It was the ‘fear factor’, used crudely and without apology, which ultimately pulled people back to the right on election day in Israel, with Netanyahu making last minute statements like ‘A vote for Herzog or Livni is a vote for the establishment of ‘Hamastan'”.

Meanwhile David Cameron warned that not voting for him would lead to a Labour/SNP alliance and the collapse of the Union.

Mike Gapes added that, although we may not like to admit it, negative campaigning works. Focusing on the positives that Labour could bring ultimately turned out to be too weak a tactic when compared with the strong Tory campaign emphasising weakness and lack of security.

In Israel, Biran said, the left had mistakenly, and prematurely, assumed that they could run their campaign on economic issues, without addressing the issue of security. Conversely, but still because of the all-important ‘security’ factor, Ed Miliband’s failure to address the economic issues underpinning the social ones is widely agreed to have cost Labour the election.

Whether or not Labour should play the ‘fear factor’ game is an especially pressing question after the election of Jeremy Corbyn.

In the days after Corbyn’s election the Tories repeated with almost farcical frequency that the new Labour leader was a threat to security. The Tories will keep repeating this, and Corbyn will have to develop a sophisticated strategy to navigate these claims. The fear factor works – Corbyn will have to work with it.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward

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