Britain’s Terror Attacks Cast A Shadow On UK Elections

Right-wing parties often make electoral gains in the aftermath of violent attacks. But in the UK’s snap election, things aren’t so clear cut

Theresa May during a visit to the Young Minds mental health charity in London — REUTERS
Jun 07, 2017 at 4:56 PM ET

A police cordon still closes off the streets, now eerily quiet, around London’s Borough Market, days after the shocking terror attack that killed seven people and critically injured dozens more. That Saturday night, three attackers ploughed a van into pedestrians on nearby London Bridge and then went on a knife-wielding rampage, attacking crowds of people enjoying the market’s popular cafes, bars and restaurants. Now, flower bouquets and “We heart London” signs surround these sealed-off streets in the heart of the capital, while lunchtime crowds of locals, shoppers and workers, diverted through the side streets around the crime scene, try to carry on as normal.

At the King’s Arms pub, just off Borough High Street and minutes away from Saturday night’s deadly scenes, Borough Market traders pass the time until police lines are removed and they can return to work selling fresh produce, snacks and hot street food at this popular foodie haven for tourists and locals alike. Britain’s snap parliamentary election is Thursday and these traders insist the terror attack hasn’t affected the way they intend to vote.

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“If you are a business in a highly populated area, security is something you’re always thinking about anyway,” says one man in his 40s, who did not want to be named because the traders are not authorized to talk to the media. “It won’t affect the way I vote, because security was already on my mind.” Another says that the attack has only cemented his resolve to vote against the incumbent Conservative party and it’s leader, prime minister Theresa May. “She spent seven years, as home secretary, cutting funding for security and police,” he says. “I will vote for whoever is likely to stop her being prime minister again.”

Passers-by were, like these traders, similarly insistent that the attack, which took place just minutes away from where they live or work, would not change their vote on Thursday. “People have already decided, their minds are made up,” says Danielle, a 26-year-old consultant out on her lunch break.  Vicky, a 30-year-old administrator who lives locally, says: “What happened could have happened whoever was in power – Conservative or Labour, it would have made no difference.” Both only wished to give their first names.

During the six-week campaign, the two main parties have presented markedly different positions on the issue of national security and the campaign itself has been to a significant degree defined by two deadly terror attacks – the London rampage only weeks after a bomber killed 22 people, including young children and injured many more at an Ariana Grande concert in the northern England city of Manchester.

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Both attacks paused national campaigning. The police cuts mentioned by the Borough market trader soon became a key theme of the campaign. When the British army was deployed on the streets to protect British landmarks in the wake of the Manchester attack  – a rare sight in the UK, where everyday police officers are unarmed – it emerged this was because of a shortage of police officers. While British Prime Minister Theresa May was home secretary, her department oversaw cuts of 23,000 to the police force. A video from a police federation meeting emerged, where officers warned of the impact of such cuts, claiming reductions would be “putting officers at risk and ultimately risking national security.” The then-home secretary told them to stop “crying wolf.”

The question of whether the cuts had adversely impacted the country only grew louder after the attack on Saturday night. The Sunday after, May used her prime ministerial address to not just offer condolences and reassure the public, but to set out policy proposals, too. According to Matt Zarb-Cousin, a former spokesman for the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, this enabled a tougher response from the opposition. “Once she did that her record as home secretary and prime minister was fair game,” he says. “You could then scrutinize the level of responsibility in what happened. And that’s exactly how it played out, with this huge focus on police cuts and under-resourcing of [the security service] M15, which all happened on her watch.” The cuts were made while May was home secretary under Prime Minister David Cameron and fell under a broader policy of austerity measures that reduced budgets to local authorities and public services.

May had called the snap poll while her Conservative Party was significantly ahead in the polls. Now, she is struggling to put this issue to rest. Journalists continue to ask about the cuts, while a parade of ex-police chiefs have lined up before television cameras to accuse the government of “lying” about the numbers of armed forces on the streets. A former Conservative party director of strategy held her “responsible” for the London attack and called for her resignation. Steve Hilton, Cameron’s former policy guru, accused May of “blame-shifting” over the attack.

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It was an unexpected turn over an issue that’s presumed to be safe terrain for the right-wing Conservative party. Shashank Joshi, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a defense and security think tank, says: “An atmosphere of insecurity would traditionally benefit any right wing party, which tend to be stronger on issues of security and terror because they are typically associated with more robust positions on issues of law and order and willing to take tougher steps.”

In his speeches following the London and Manchester attacks, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn raised the idea, backed by former security chiefs, of there being “connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.” After the London Borough Market attack, he called for “difficult conversations” with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states he said had “funded and fuelled extremist ideology.” It was a clear contrast to May’s speech, in which she focused on domestic matters and said there was “far too much tolerance of extremism” in the United Kingdom. One survey taken this week found 75 percent of the population agreed with Corbyn, that UK interventions in the Middle East made terror attacks at home more likely. A poll earlier this year found that most people disapproved of the British government’s arms trade with Saudi Arabia.

The Conservative campaign meanwhile has focused on attacking the Labour Party’s credibility on national security. Corbyn has been accused of supporting the IRA, being weak on terror and siding with Britain’s enemies. Conservatives are targeting people in marginal seats. One video stressing those arguments has been viewed over a million times.

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The campaign may have the opposite effect on some voters. On the streets near Borough Market this week, Cherelle, a 34-year-old personnel advisor, observed: “When the Conservatives put down the competition like that, it makes me wonder what’s really going on, it makes it look like they have something to hide.”

The Conservative focus also highlights the striking generational difference in party support that has emerged during this election campaign: 62 percent of those aged over 65 intend to vote Conservative, while 71 percent of 18-24 year olds say they will back the Labour Party. This split was on stark display in one of the campaign’s live TV debates, during which Corbyn took questions from the crowd. A line-up of older men pressed the Labour leader to say if he would “push the nuclear button” – would he do it as a first response? Would he press red in retaliation?

Corbyn has spoken of the need to push for multilateral disarmenment, although the Labour manifesto does include a pledge to keep Britan’s Trident nuclear deterrent.

When it was the turn of a younger woman to pose a question, she remarked: “I don’t understand why everyone in this room is so keen on killing millions of people.”