The Sunday Telegraph reports that “militant” campaigners, under the direction of a movement “formed by a number of Marxist groups”, are planning a “day of rage”, on which they will aim to “take down the government” in the wake of the Grenfell disaster. This morning, Sophy Ridge asked John McDonnell if Labour had been “playing to the crowd” in its response to the disaster.
Politicians are often criticised for politicising tragedies. But, on both main understandings of the term “political” — in the sense of relating to public affairs, and in the sense of making partisan points — it is unsurprising that they do. Fraser Nelson is right to say that Grenfell is “political”: that the disaster has raised fundamental national and local questions is undeniable; answers are urgently required from Conservative and Labour politicians, alike. And peaceful protest is, of course, an indispensable form of political action. None of that is to condone the use of last week’s tragedy for party-political gain, however.
Yes, Jeremy Corbyn’s election campaign tapped into strongly-held feelings of societal unfairness. Yes, Labour’s increased vote- and seat-share shows extensive demand for left-wing solutions. And yes, Theresa May has seemed sadly incapable of exhibiting prime-ministerial empathy in this current time of need. But none of that legitimises those using the horrors of Grenfell to attempt to override the general election result.
Arguably, democracy is most important for those who struggle to have their voices heard in other ways. Those with the greatest need for local government services are usually the poorest in our society; to denounce local government without a fair hearing is to risk unsettling that. Moreover, in this country, politicians are chosen fairly by the electorate — rich and poor, together. There are times when calling for a national government’s overthrow can be justified, but such times are usually confined to those in which there is a serious threat of tyranny or the breakdown of civil order.
Disasters are political, and our politicians must respond to them. It is wrong and dangerous, however, to allow loudspeaker politicised reactions to such events to trump justice, adherence to the rule of law, and democracy itself.