Terror Dominates U.K. Election After Short-Lived Campaign TruceBy and
Prime minister said there’s ‘too much tolerance of extremism’
Tories are seeking to capitalize on Corbyn’s past comments
The political truce that followed the second terror attack of the U.K. general election campaign lasted less than five hours, as the opposition Labour Party attacked Theresa May’s assertion that there was “far too much tolerance of extremism.”
The prime minister’s statement, made outside her Downing Street residence on Sunday morning, began as an update on the previous night’s London Bridge attack, which killed seven people and left 48 injured. But it moved on to set out a series of policy measures that May argued need to be taken in response. Her accusation that people “across society” are reluctant to confront terrorism went further still.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn used a speech on Sunday night to argue that her proposal for “difficult conversations” must start with tackling Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that “have funded and fueled extremist ideology.”
He also went after May’s record as home secretary and the cuts to police numbers. “You cannot protect the public on the cheap,” Corbyn said in Carlisle, northern England. “The police and security services must get the resources they need, not 20,000 police cuts. Theresa May was warned by the Police Federation, but she accused them of ‘crying wolf.”’
The prime minister called early elections arguing that she needed an increased majority to strengthen her hand during the coming negotiations on leaving the European Union. What polls suggested was a 20-point-plus lead has shrunk as the June 8 vote has neared.
Even before London followed Manchester as the scene of the U.K.’s second terror attack in two weeks, her Conservatives were shining a light on Corbyn’s past relationship with extremist groups. On a BBC television special on Friday, the Labour leader faced repeated questions about his closeness to Irish republican terrorist groups in the 1980s, when they were in the midst of a bombing campaign.
The most striking part of May’s statement on Sunday was toward the end. “There is, to be frank, far too much tolerance of extremism in our country,” she said. “So we need to become far more robust in identifying it and stamping it out -- across the public sector and across society. That will require some difficult and often embarrassing conversations.”
The Conservative Party declined to expand on what the prime minister meant by this. One explanation is that May was voicing a frustration held from her six years as home secretary under David Cameron, when she was unable to bring forward counter-extremism legislation, partly because of a difficulty in finding a workable legal definition of “non-violent extremism.”
Another is that May, who spent Saturday evening at a campaign event in North London with thousands of Hindus -- telling them they were “a shining example of how a community can integrate successfully and embrace British values” -- might feel there is a specific problem with Muslim integration. “We need to live our lives not in a series of separated, segregated communities but as one truly United Kingdom,” she said in her statement.
May is also most comfortable when talking about counter-extremism. On foreign trips, such as to the United Nations General Assembly or the Group of Seven summit, it has been the subject she has preferred to focus on.
“It could be that the reason she went into so much detail is simply that it was the third attack in three months, and the debate had to move on,” said Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at Kent University.
But her message also chimed with one her party has been pushing relentlessly about her opponent. The most-viewed video on the Tories’ Facebook page is one attacking Corbyn as soft on terror. Captioned “On June 9 this man could be prime minister,” it shows a series of clips from Corbyn’s past in which he advocated cutting the military, eliminating nuclear weapons and abolishing NATO, called Hamas and Hezbollah his “friends,” and was reluctant to condemn the Irish Republican Army.
The opening quote of the video, which the Tories have thrown back at Corbyn repeatedly, is the Labour leader telling a 2011 rally, “I’ve been involved in opposing anti-terror legislation ever since I went into Parliament in 1983.” The video has been viewed 5.9 million times.
May’s experience cuts both ways: as home secretary from 2010 to 2016, she must bear some responsibility if the U.K. isn’t fighting extremism properly. Corbyn has also accused the government of underfunding the police.
But an ICM poll last month showed 44 percent of voters trust May the most to “protect people from threats at home and abroad” compared with just 14 percent for Corbyn, while a May 30-31 YouGov survey for the Times found 40 percent of voters said the Tories are best equipped to handle defense and security policy, compared with 20 percent who chose Labour. As both sides try to win voters who are abandoning the U.K. Independence Party, May has the advantage.
“Corbyn is seen as being soft on terrorism, not patriotic, someone who doesn’t want to sing the national anthem,” said Goodwin of Kent University. “He represents a lot of the things that traditional social Conservatives loathe.”