In the week or so between the leaking of Labour’s Manifesto and the Manchester terrorist attack, Labour began to close the gap in the opinion polls. When the election was announced, the Tories were up to 25 per cent ahead of Labour. By the previous week, that lead had been cut to just five points, a figure which, if replicated evenly across the country, would cut their parliamentary majority to just two. As Jeremy Corbyn pointed out, this was largely because the election meant the media had been obliged to give more coverage to Labour’s policies, rather than the universal propaganda about his “weak leadership”. He could have added that it has also stopped the attacks on him by right wing Labour MPs who, for the moment, have to concentrate on trying to retain their own seats.
Another factor has been Theresa May’s arrogant and over-confident performance. With the launch of her manifesto she shot herself in the foot by announcing increased charges for social care, immediately dubbed the “Dementia Tax” and an attack on the elderly, who are a key voting base for the Tories.
At the same time, Labour led a voter registration drive aimed, in particular, at young voters and over 2.3 million new voters had registered by the closing date of May 22. Cabinet Office figures show that 622,000 registered on the last day and, of these, 246,000 were under 25 and another 207,000 were between 25 and 34. This is not only good news for Labour but also shows that the clear policy differences between the two main parties have increased people’s engagement with the election.
The Tories were always bound to respond viciously, like cornered rats, but the Manchester bombing appeared to give them, and their tabloid backers, the perfect opportunity. The next morning, the Sun carried a front-page picture of Corbyn and the banner headline ‘BLOOD ON HIS HANDS’. Only on the inside pages was this revealed to be a scandalous distortion of Corbyn’s talks with Sinn Fein during Britain’s war in Northern Ireland, over 30 years ago.
May herself set out to milk the Manchester atrocity to the full, ordering troops onto the streets and posing as the “strong and stable” leader. However, polls taken since then suggest that this has not had the effect she expected. The most recent shows support for Labour up 3 percent in the last week, with Tory support unchanged; the gap continues to narrow.
On the day that campaigning restarted, Jeremy Corbyn delivered a speech setting out Labour’s condemnation of the horrific bombing, his own deep sympathy for the victims, and appreciation of the response of the emergency services and the ordinary people of Manchester. Moreover, in sharp contrast to Theresa May, he also courageously addressed the causes behind it. It is worth quoting extensively:
“Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home. That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and implacably held to account for their actions.
“But an informed understanding of the causes of terrorism is an essential part of an effective response that will protect the security of our people, that fights rather than fuels terrorism.
“Protecting this country requires us to be both strong against terrorism and strong against the causes of terrorism. The blame is with the terrorists, but if we are to protect our people we must be honest about what threatens our security.
“Those causes certainly cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone. Over the past fifteen years or so, a sub-culture of often suicidal violence has developed amongst a tiny minority of – mainly young men – falsely drawing authority from Islamic beliefs and often nurtured in a prison system in urgent need of resources and reform.
“And no rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain outrages like this week’s massacre.
“But we must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working. We need a smarter way to reduce the threat from countries that nurture terrorists and generate terrorism.
“So, let the quality of our debate, over the next fortnight, be worthy of the country we are proud to defend. Let’s have our arguments without impugning anyone’s patriotism and without diluting the unity with which we stand against terror.”
The response from Boris Johnson and then Theresa May was, as could be expected, a disgraceful and demagogic personal attack on the Labour leader. May said:
“I have been here with the G7, working with other international leaders to fight terrorism. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn has said that terror attacks in Britain are our own fault and he has chosen to do that a few days after one of the worst terrorist atrocities we have experienced in the United Kingdom. I want to make something clear to Jeremy Corbyn and to you: there can never be an excuse for terrorism, there can be no excuse for what happened in Manchester.”
Corbyn responded to May’s predictable but utterly dishonest attack when he was questioned by Andrew Neil as to whether the Manchester attack was the result of UK foreign policy, by pointing out that UK military interventions alongside US forces have created “huge ungoverned spaces” in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
“The parallel I was drawing this morning was that a number of people ever since the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have drawn attention to the links with foreign policy, including Boris Johnson in 2005, two former heads of MI5, and of course the foreign affairs select committee.”
He can speak with the authority of foresight and consistency since he voted in the House of Commons against all of these interventions and, as the Tory press never tires of pointing out, has voted 60 times against the anti-terrorism legislation that did little harm to terrorists but undermined our civil rights at home.
True, from the point of view of revolutionary socialists, this response is inadequate, to say the least, but Jeremy is a principled reformist socialist, and not in any sense a revolutionary. That is why he promises “more police on the streets under a Labour Government”, that cuts will stop “at the police station door” and that security services will receive more resources to deal with terrorism.
More generally, he sees British warmongering in the Middle East or Northern Ireland as bad policies, not an integral part of British capitalism and imperialism. In short, though not an absolute pacifist, he is an advocate of peace as a policy, as he said in his speech.
“I have spent my political life working for peace and human rights and to bring an end to conflict and devastating wars. That will almost always mean talking to people you profoundly disagree with. That’s what conflict resolution is all about.”
This is a reference to his discussions with leaders of the Republican Movement, like Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, during the 1980s as well as his attitude to the Syrian civil war. His solution in both cases was, and remains, engaging in talks, a ceasefire, diplomacy and peace conferences, to resolve apparently intractable differences.
He sincerely believes this is the way to end such bloody and destructive wars and to defend human rights. He often points to the role played in the ending of Apartheid in South Africa by Nelson Mandela, a man now regarded by world leaders as a veritable saint but who, in the 1980s, was denounced by leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan as a terrorist.
What his approach leaves out is that the Apartheid state was already on the brink of defeat, primarily because of the rise of a powerful trade union movement. Its defenders opted for negotiation when the alternative was an escalating class struggle that threatened not only White domination but capitalism itself.
In Syria today, Assad's regime, backed by Russia and Iran, would only accept a “negotiated settlement” if it represented acceptance by other regional and world powers of its victory over the forces of the democratic revolution. That would neither meet the Syrian people’s desire for freedom and human rights nor lead to a lasting peace.
Whatever the flaws of Jeremy Corbyn’s peace policy, however, it does at least start from a correct standpoint; rejection of UK involvement in military interventions in the Middle East. He is also right to condemn the failed policy of the war against terror. To do this in the aftermath of the Manchester atrocity shows that, far from being the “weak leader” caricatured by the Tory and liberal press and the Labour Right, Corbyn is actually a courageous defender of his principles.
Of course, this has drawn abuse from cowardly bullies like Lib-Dem leader Tim Farron and Boris Johnson. These attacks are based on the fact that he refuses to give support to British imperialism or to accept its ‘right’ to use its military power to defend its economic and strategic interests abroad. For the same reason, they rage against his continued opposition to Trident, despite accepting its retention as policy in Labour’s manifesto.
Meanwhile, a series of large election rallies in Leeds, Liverpool and Cardiff, with thousands of enthusiastic young people in attendance, are a sign that Labour’s message is getting through, despite the media. They should continue up and down the country. The election of a Corbyn-led Labour government would be a mighty shock to the Right, and not just in Britain. It would be an encouragement to left forces in Europe and around the world.
Of course, that would only be the beginning of the real struggle – with the entire British ruling class and the establishment. Nor would the sabotage by Labour's right wing end, indeed, it would increase. We should remember here the fate of the Syriza government led by Alexis Tsipras in Greece in 2015. It was brought to its knees because it relied on negotiations and a referendum rather than mobilise the Greek workers to take control of the economy.
That’s why a Corbyn government would need massive and active support from the trade unions and working class communities outside parliament, even to begin to carry out its modest programme. But the 2017 election campaign has already given us a glimpse that everything is possible, if we have the will and the strength to make it so.