How devastation changed the face of the UK General Election


An election to decide the path of Brexit has now been dominated by two awful terrorist attacks which have changed the nature of the debate and have, arguably, changed what the UK is voting on.

A vote on the EU

Prime Minister Theresa May called a general election on the 18th April, in the hope of gaining approval from the British public for her Brexit negotiations and hinder the attempts of other parties to disrupt these negotiations.

At the beginning of the campaign this was the case. While the UK remained in shock after Westminster attacks on the 22nd April this did not appear to have had a significant impact on campaigning. The coverage was very much on Brexit and social issues, which were at the top of party manifestos and mainstream media commentary – with counter-terrorism policy falling to the bottom of both.

Terror incidents…

This changed on the 22nd May when Salman Abedi exploded an improvised explosive device at the exit of the Manchester arena at an Ariana Grande concert. This was the worst terrorist attack on British soil since July 2005 (when three terrorist targeted the London transport system) and killed 23 people, many of which were children.

Then, on the 3rd of June, at least 7 people were killed and 48 injured when three men drove a van into pedestrians on London Bridge before indiscriminately killing civilians in and around Borough Market. As the second attack in just two weeks, the UK has been left in shock and mourning. Understandably, coverage of the awful attacks dominated the news. All the major parties initially suspended campaigning on both occasions and then returned with a focus on how to stop these heinous crimes from happening again.

…taking over the campaign

May’s response has focused on increasing security and being tougher on terrorism. After Manchester, she pledged to create a new Commission for Countering Extremism which “would be made a statutory body with a legal responsibility to identify extremism and support people and organisations in resisting it”.

Then in the face of the London Bridge attack, she said “enough is enough” and signalled a change in stance away from, what she described as, “far too much tolerance of extremism in our country”. She spoke of a need to: tackle the “evil ideology of Islamist extremism”; remove this ideology’s “safe space”, both online and in Iraq and Syria; and reassess of our counterterrorism strategy, potentially providing more powers to security services and longer “custodial sentences for terrorist-related offences – even apparently less serious offences”.

Conversely, Corbyn has focused on the roots of radicalisation, and the potential impact of UK foreign policy. He made a powerful, albeit devise, speech in which he condemned the attacks and argued that it was time to “be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working”. He said: “We need a smarter way to reduce the threat from countries that nurture terrorists and generate terrorism”.

In response to the London Bridge attacks his comments also focused on current UK security policy. While echoing his previous calls to find an “effective” way to ensure national safety, he also drew on May’s potential faults by highlighting her police cuts in the face of warnings by the warned by the Police Federation – arguing: “You cannot protect the public on the cheap”.

Counter-terrorism is now top of the political debate and is now central to election coverage. In this, as May notes, “the choice that people face at the General Election has just become starker”; it is now between May’s tough on terrorism, strong security stance and Corbyn’s focus on tackling the root causes of radicalisation and creating sustainable security. As the country mourns it must also decide who it trusts to protect it in these scary and uncertain times.

This blog post is part of a blog series about the UK General Election by the emerging think tank Agora in London. Agora will be launched in autumn 2017 as part of the foraus-global network of open think tanks.