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UK General Election: Mourning the Manchester bombing

United Kingdom

Balloons and floral tributes for the victims of the attack on the Manchester Arena are seen in St Ann's square in Manchester, Britain, 24 May 2017. © REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Politics isn’t something that can actually be put on hold, writes Abi Wilkinson for our series covering the UK General Election.

There’s a very human instinct, in the wake of a massacre, to put everything else on hold. We recognise that those most directly affected have no choice in the matter. How can a grieving parent avoid being totally consumed by their loss? Of course, every day brings countless private tragedies – but events like the attack in Manchester enter the collective consciousness. It feels disrespectful for the world to continue to turn as normal. And many of us are deeply emotionally affected despite having no personal connection to the victims.

In this country, there’s no precedent for responding to a terrorist attack in the lead up to a general election. A temporary suspension of campaigning activities to allow a sort of public mourning period felt right. The gesture was largely symbolic – politics isn’t something that can actually be put on hold. A young man travelling to a pop concert and committing mass murder with a nail bomb is a politically significant act. The Prime Minister must quickly act in response, and their chosen course is politically significant too.

People hold hands during a multifaith vigil for victims of the attack on the Manchester Arena, in Manchester. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls.

It would have been unedifying, to say the least, to watch Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn squabble as the body count was still rising – but they must now join a conversation that has already started without them. Even if we consider it opportune to hold our tongue for some amount of time, there’s no way to pause our brain’s ability to form opinions. There’s fierce disagreement about both the cause of this sort of violence and the most effective policy responses.

The terror threat has been increased from severe to critical for the first time in a decade – which is intended to signal an ongoing threat – and police have said that they believe the bomber may have been acting as part of a network. Several suspects have been arrested in connection with the attack. Prime Minister Theresa May has decided to deploy 5,000 soldiers on the streets as part of an established plan known as Operation Temperer, provoking mixed responses. How can we expect these events not to dominate election discourse for the remainder of the campaign period?

A soldier and an armed policeman pass Big Ben in London, Britain 24 May 2017. REUTERS/Neil Hall

National security isn’t particularly comfortable ground for the Labour campaign. Even before this latest horror, the Conservative party and its supportive media have aggressively pushed the idea that a Corbyn-led government would endanger ordinary people. The Sun’s first edition Tuesday front page (which went to print slightly before Monday night’s attack) suggested the Labour leader had ‘blood on his hands’ and was directly responsible for civilian deaths as a result of IRA attacks. The language choices might become more careful and euphemistic, but there’s every reason to believe this will be a continued line of attack.

The desire to protect your family is primal. However little evidence there is to support the suggestion that a Labour government would increase the risk of terrorism, even planting a seed of doubt might be enough to dissuade many swing voters from lending the party their support. Personal impressions count for a lot in elections. Corbyn’s historical foreign policy positions are a central part of his appeal to many leftwing supporters, who see him as a champion of marginalised voices. The Islington MP has repeatedly condemned political violence and argued it’s necessary to communicate with all sides to resolve conflicts – but opponents suggest his contact with organizations such as the IRA and Hamas shows him to be a ‘terrorist sympathiser’.

Ironically, though she competently performs the sort of surface-level patriotism that’s commonly expected of a political leader, a strong case can be made that it’s actually Theresa May’s policies that increase the terror risk. Twenty thousand police officers have been cut since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, and just last month Home Secretary Amber Rudd refused to rule out further cuts. On Tuesday night, defence expert Michael Clarke appeared on Newsnight to explain how police underfunding is causing knock-on problems for counterterrorist organizations. He argued that ‘the police don’t need more powers, they need more resources’ – which suggests Labour’s proposal to hire 10,000 new police officers will be far more practically useful than Theresa May’s (bizarre and unworkable) plan to ban end-to-end encryption.

A Jewish woman named Renee Rachel Black and a Muslim man named Sadiq Patel react next to floral tributes in Albert Square in Manchester, Britain 24 May 2017. REUTERS/Darren Staples

It’s also hard to trust Theresa May’s commitment to public safety when you consider the letter she sent to European Council President Donald Tusk, initiating the Article 50 process. The Prime Minister was widely condemned for hinting that she would use security co-operation as a bargaining chip, and would refuse to work with European partners to counter risks in all countries unless she got a Brexit trade deal. What’s more, there’s a certain absurdity to focusing on historical IRA contact when May’s Brexit strategy poses a significant threat to the fragile peace in Northern Ireland as it currently exists. Politician Bertie Ahern, who helped secure the Good Friday agreement, has said he fears the consequences of a policed border dividing north and south.

The challenge for Labour will be making these points in a way that doesn’t seem craven or cynical. No doubt, the party will be accused of ‘politicising a tragedy’ by people who’re quite happy for the alternative, anti-Corbyn narrative to stand. Tact and sensitivity are essential, and there’s certainly no basis for claiming the massacre could have been avoided under a different government. As things stand, though, there’s simply no way to fight an election campaign without tackling the issue head on. Corbyn must prove that he takes national security seriously – which means answering voters’ reasonable fears with convincing policy solutions.

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