The British election: After the terror

Two British cities have been the target of terrorist attacks in just over two weeks. What impact could the attacks have on the democratic process?

By Cathy Harper
Editor, Election Watch

The British Prime Minister has confirmed the UK’s General Election will go ahead following Saturday night's terror attack in London that saw three attackers kill seven people and injure 48 others. 

Speaking outside Downing Street following the attacks, Theresa May said that “violence can never be allowed to disrupt the democratic process.”

Mrs May went on to say that Britain “cannot and must not pretend that things can continue as they are” and that there was “too much tolerance of extremism” in the UK and that must change.

In a speech, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn backed the police to use “whatever force is necessary” to save lives.

So how much will events on London Bridge influence the last four days of campaigning? And will arguments over Brexit be overshadowed by concerns over security and intelligence?

Three terrorist attacks in England in the last three months

Britain may be entering a new era where civilians are targeted by individuals or small groups who are inspired by Islamic extremists, but who may not be a part of an international terrorist network.

There have been three attacks in the lead-up to this general election. In March, an attacker deliberately drove his van into pedestrians in Westminster; last month, a suicide bombing targeted young people attending a concert in Manchester; and on Saturday night in London, three men used a van and knives to indiscriminately attack people on London Bridge and Borough Market.

Mrs May made a statement after the latest attack, saying in “terms of their planning and execution, the recent attacks are not connected but we believe we are experiencing a new trend in the threat we face.”

The University of Melbourne’s Professor Gabriele Suder - an expert in international relations, terrorism and business - says since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, “the scale and scope of terrorism has increased and changed profoundly.”

“Since 2001 there has been over a five-fold increase in the annual number of deaths from terrorism, spanning 56 countries, many of which were not affected by this particular type of terrorism previously” she says.

“In international business studies, for example, we have changed from seeing terrorism as part of a political risk, to a risk consideration that spans value chains; and is defined as systemic global terrorism. That terminology does not exclude home-grown terrorism.”

Both the ruling Conservative Party and the main opposition party, Labour, are criticising each other’s handling of security issues.

A tweet from the Official Conservative Party Press Office. Picture: Twitter

Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn has accused Theresa May of presiding over cuts to the police force, and trying to protect the public “on the cheap”; while his political opponents have accused Mr Corbyn of being too soft on terrorism – after a statement he made in 2015 opposing the police’s “shoot to kill” tactics went viral hours after the London Bridge attack.

Will the attacks affect the result?

In April when she called the early election, Mrs May’s Conservative party had an average lead of 17 points over Labour. A margin of this size would have resulted in the Conservatives markedly increasing their currently slim parliamentary majority (the Tories currently hold 330 seats in the House of Commons; 326 are needed to form government).

Since then the margin has narrowed dramatically; and according to poll averages, at the time of the London attack, the Conservatives were on about 43 per cent, while Labour was on about 38 per cent.

In order to win, Labour has the difficult task of retaining all the 229 seats it currently holds, and winning 97 more. But if the Prime Minister’s aim in calling an early election was to increase her party’s majority, she may not succeed.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the Conservatives did not receive much of a boost in the polls after the Manchester attack.

History suggests the tragedy should bolster Theresa May. According to research from Manchester University, violent attacks usually produce a “rally-round-the-flag effect” that boosts support for government.

But Dr Shakira Hussein from the National Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, believes that some Muslim voters may punish the Conservative government for its perceived mishandling of the London attack, as claims begin to emerge that members of the Muslim community had already alerted the authorities to concerns about the alleged perpetrators.

But she says predicting electoral movement is difficult. “It will inevitably have some kind of an impact, but there’s not enough time for the dust to settle and for the investigation to clarify what, if anything, could have been done to prevent it”.

The British electorate is currently very volatile. There has been a great deal of political upheaval in recent years, with the Conservatives unexpectedly winning a majority in the last general election in 2015; and last year’s vote to leave the European Union.

Adding to the volatility is low voter turnout. Since 2010 it has fluctuated between 59 per cent and 66 per cent. Turnout among young people has dropped from around 60 per cent in the early 1990s to around 40 per cent in elections since.

The trend could continue this week, mainly due to voter fatigue. Since 2014, Brits have voted in the Scottish referendum; a general election; the Brexit referendum and now this year’s early poll. Many may agree with ‘Brenda from Bristol’ who seemed to sum up the feelings of many at the prospect of an early general election.

The impact on Brexit negotiations

Whoever wins the election will be involved in negotiations regarding the terms on which Britain will exit the European Union. Both the Conservatives and Labour say the result of the Brexit referendum has to be respected.

Mrs May appears to be positioning for a ‘hard exit’ which means Britain would have exclusive control over immigration, making it impossible to retain some form of membership of the EU single market. Labour is angling for a ‘softer’ exit, where Britain would retain membership of the single market in return for a degree of free movement of people.

Prime Minister May called the election saying she needed a mandate for Brexit. She accused opposition parties of political game-playing to weaken her government’s negotiating position in Europe; and said Britain needed strong government and strong leadership. Opinion polls suggest she may not get the leverage that an increased majority would give her party and her leadership.

Regardless, much of the negotiating power on the exact nature of Brexit is held by the EU and not Britain, so neither the Conservatives nor Labour will necessarily be able to successfully negotiate their plans.

The Scottish Independence issue

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, has promised to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence and she is campaigning on that policy.

Following the vote for the UK to leave the EU, Ms Sturgeon has argued Scotland should have the choice on what path it wishes to follow.

A tweet from Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, calling for independence. Picture: Twitter

Mrs May’s government has said any second referendum on Scottish independence should wait until the Brexit process has been completed, with the Prime Minister insisting “now is not the time”.

But the SNP’s stance has support domestically. Over the weekend, an estimated 15,000 people marched through Glasgow in support of Scottish independence.

But, according to the University of Melbourne’s Dr Tom Daly who has previously spoken to Pursuit on the issue, the general election poses a real risk for the Scottish National Party.

“The party’s landslide haul of 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats in the 2015 General Election can scarcely be improved upon. But a rising Conservative Party and stalled support for independence indicate it could lose some seats,” says Dr Daly, a Fellow at the Melbourne Law School and Associate Director at the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law.

The stakes are high in this general election, and all of the issues likely to be in play on ballot day are large ones. Up until the attacks on Saturday night, it was an election campaign only just emerging from the shadow of the Manchester attack.

Campaigning has been suspended twice and, out of respect for the victims, there has been little open speculation about how the attack could influence the result.

But the overwhelming mood in the wake of the attacks has been summed up by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, saying terrorists “want to stop us voting on Thursday… we can’t allow them to do that. We can’t be cowed by terrorism”.

This article was co-published with the University of Melbourne’s Pursuit news site.

Banner image: Police on the streets of London following the terrorist attack on June 3, 2017. Credit: Getty Images


politics; national-security; election Politics; National Security; Election uk-conservative; uk-labour; uk-snp Conservative Party; Labour Party; Scottish National Party (SNP)

Election Watch: Past Editions