With campaigning suspended following the Manchester terror attack, fear stalked the Corbyn camp that Labour’s impetus was lost. The atmosphere in the country had changed. The government had ordered troops onto the streets. The Conservatives reportedly wanted the campaign pause to last for six days, meaning Labour would have to be silent while May attended international conferences and looked prime ministerial.
What happened next was one of the key moments of the general election. Many in the Labour Party believed that Manchester had put them on the defensive, and that when politics resumed Corbyn would have to walk on eggshells. But instead, the leader and his closest advisors made probably the biggest call of the campaign. They decided Labour would restart the election on Friday 26 May, four days after the bombing, with an unflinching speech from the leader on terror and security. They would wrest the agenda by placing acts of terrorism in the context of foreign policy and austerity.
“It was bold, it was risky,” says one of Corbyn’s advisors. “There were people within our campaign team who were like, ‘Fuck, are you sure about doing this?’” But the choice, as they saw it, was between getting out in front or passively waiting to be pummelled by the inevitable onslaught from Tory strategist Lynton Crosby. “If you say nothing on it you’re on the back foot and are being asked to respond without a clear line to take,” says the advisor. “In a general election campaign there’s no point in meekly going along with things, that doesn’t get you anywhere from a tactical point of view.”
“Seumas [Milne] made the decision to do the security speech after Manchester,” says Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s chief of staff. “We were fucking terrified.” When selected lines from the speech, shaped by Milne, Andrew Fisher, Andrew Murray, the academic Jem Bendell, and Corbyn himself, were briefed to the press the night before its delivery, the reaction was predictable. “Corbyn: UK wars to blame for terror,” was the headline on the front page of the Daily Telegraph. The journalistic clique went into paroxysms of excitement, believing Corbyn was about to make the slip-up they had all been waiting for.
Many in the Labour Party thought the same. The Leader’s Office could not find an MP willing to introduce Corbyn for the speech. “I got phone calls from Labour MPs the night before saying ‘If he says this we are fucked,’” recalls Murphy. “I didn’t sleep and felt ill because it was such a small group making the decisions… There’s insecurity because it’s an overwhelming responsibility. Are we going to let the left down? Are we being too honest at such a sensitive time? Will this be seen as an attack on the Blairites?”
The speech that Corbyn delivered at 11 a.m. on 26 May 2017 was far more carefully argued than listeners could have anticipated from the brouhaha that preceded it. Corbyn did say that it was essential to understand the “causes” of terrorism, but was clear that “those causes certainly cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone. Over the past 15 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 no rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain, outrages like this week’s massacre.”
But, Corbyn argued, the shattering of a region had created conditions in which jihadism could grow. “Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed out the connections between wars that we’ve been involved in or supported and fought in, in other countries such as Libya, and terrorism here at home,” he said.
The second objective of the speech was to place the issue of security in what Corbyn’s advisor describes as “our wider austerity frame”. May was vulnerable here, having presided over a 20,000 reduction in police numbers while home secretary. “Austerity has to stop at the Accident and Emergency ward and at the police station door,” Corbyn said. “We cannot be protected and cared for on the cheap.”
As the content of Corbyn’s intervention was not as controversial as expected, the Tories – who reportedly cleared their schedule in order to focus attention on the Labour leader – simply attacked the speech they wished he had made instead. From the prime minister down, their response was flagrantly dishonest. “Jeremy Corbyn has said that terror attacks in Britain are our own fault,” claimed May. “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.” Boris Johnson called the speech “absolutely monstrous,” and pretended it was an “attempt to justify or to legitimate the actions of terrorists.”
But Tory attack dog Michael Fallon, when interviewed on Channel 4 News that evening, was embarrassed by host Krishnan Guru-Murthy, who put to him the proposition that while the Iraq war had not created Islamic fundamentalism, it had given jihadists a pretext. Fallon condemned the idea, only for Guru-Murthy to reveal that he was quoting from an old Boris Johnson article. “It’s exactly the same as what Jeremy Corbyn is saying now,” Guru-Murthy exclaimed. “No, I think it’s more, it’s more is what he’s saying that um, of what I’ve said,” muttered a startled Fallon.
The Conservative condemnations were matched by a blizzard of outrage from the press. But in fact, by straying from the political consensus on terrorism, Corbyn had goaded the Tories and the media into attacking – and publicising – a view that was widely shared. An instant YouGov poll on 26 May found that 53 per cent believed that “wars the UK has supported or fought are responsible, at least in part, for terror attacks against the UK”; only 24 per cent disagreed. An outright majority of the public supported a position the politico-media clique had deemed beyond the pale.
The second edition of Alex Nunns’ The Candidate, with extensive material on the 2017 general election, is available from OR Books.