On Monday 22 May, a few days before we went to press, Salman Abedi detonated a bomb at the Manchester Arena, killing 22 people. The horror of this attack, targeting young people attending a concert, pulled the general election campaign to a sudden halt.
Theresa May’s immediate response was to announce that the terror threat level had been raised to “critical” and to put 5,000 troops on the streets of Britain, as well as formally suspending national political campaigning for the rest of the week.
The idea that effectively suspending democratic debate for a week is the best response to a terror attack is absurd. And troops on the streets do nothing to deter such attacks — but do have the effect of scaring people and creating an atmosphere of tension.
Attacks such as this one at such a crucial moment can bolster the right and the sitting government, but we shouldn’t take this for granted. If Theresa May seeks to use the Manchester attack to secure her position she might find it won’t work. It was, after all, May who was home secretary for six years before becoming prime minister. Security has been her responsibility.
And Jeremy Corbyn is stood on very strong ground. He has been an opponent of all the wars which have fed ISIS and al Qaeda over recent years. He rightly said, in a speech at a demonstration against the impending attack on Iraq in 2003, that “It will set off a spiral of conflict, of hate, of misery, of desperation that will fuel the wars, the conflict, the terrorism, the depression and the misery of future generations.”
And now that campaigning has resumed Corbyn needs to return full throttle to the mass rallies and confident policies that had begun to turn the polls around in the days before Manchester.
Along with the rallies, the launch of Labour’s manifesto represented a real shift in the mood around the election. Here was a manifesto which, for the first time in 30 years, really attempted to tackle the effects of neoliberalism.
This month marks 20 years since the landslide victory of Labour in 1997, led by Tony Blair. His approach was to say we have to be “realistic” — and for him that meant accepting (and continuing) privatisation, neoliberal trade deals, giving a free hand to the Bank of England, and so on.
Corbyn’s manifesto has thrown all of that out and said, why not tax the rich? End the privatisation of the NHS? Abolish tuition fees? And this has led to a surge in support for Labour, with the gap between them and the Tories shrinking to 9 points in polls.
The Labour right has adopted a position of “great manifesto, shame about Corbyn”. But this is disingenuous: if Corbyn weren’t the leader, this manifesto wouldn’t exist. Ed Miliband’s programme didn’t go anywhere near as far; and it’s hard to believe anyone thinks Owen Smith would have produced a set of policies challenging the Blairite orthodoxy.
The Tories’ manifesto launch, on the other hand, was a disaster. The announcement of a social care plan which would force older people to sell their houses in order to pay for care (see page 6) seemed designed to attack the very constituency most likely to turn out and vote Tory.
The furore over this so-called “dementia tax” led to an embarrassing U-turn. This was followed by another stumble when it was revealed that the costing for their plan to stop free school dinners and fund breakfasts instead had allowed less than 7p per pupil.
Class issues are at the heart of this election. It is a battle between those who would run the NHS for the public good and those who would sell their grandparents to please the insurance companies. This election has exposed that there is an alternative.