Do terror attacks influence elections? For many people waking up Friday morning to the results of the U.K.’s general election, it makes intuitive sense that they do.
The U.K. has now suffered three traumatic attacks in the last three months and security services have disrupted at least five credible plots.
Each attack has spoken to a slightly different fear. The first, in Westminster, hit at the heart of the country’s capital and its democratic institutions. The second, in Manchester, targeted parents and young girls at a pop concert. The third struck at people doing what they do in London on a Saturday night; enjoying expensive snacks and drinks in gentrified pubs.
This has not quite yet become the new normal, but the British have to a degree accepted these realities and gone beyond a “something must be done” response, despite Theresa May's declaration that "enough is enough." For all that terrorism is taking center stage in this last week of campaigning before the UK goes to the polls Thursday, it doesn’t mean it will be the decisive factor at the ballot box.
It’s true that the British public is likely to rally round an incumbent when faced with any kind of external threat, not just terrorism. Yet it would be nave to think that it’s this series of attacks that will swing the election in favor of May, the hardline former Home Secretary with years of experience in public security behind her.
The Conservative election mantra of “strong and stable” was not intended to chime so much with fears of Islamist terrorism as the possibilities of post-Brexit economic apocalypse.
Research and recent experience seems to indicate that terror attacks ahead of elections, at least in Europe, have little effect on eventual outcomes.
The appalling series of terror atrocities in France over the last two years, for instance, weren’t enough to bring Jean Marie Le Pen’s National Front to victory, despite predictions by none other than President Donald Trump.
(As ever, he jumped on the most recent London attack to try and pivot the terror attack from an opportunity for solidarity to an attack on those he deems not "smart, vigilant and tough" enough on counter-terror – doubling down on his feud with London Mayor Sadiq Khan: “Pathetic excuse by London Mayor Sadiq Khan who had to think fast on his "no reason to be alarmed" statement. MSM is working hard to sell it!” he tweeted.)
It certainly isn’t always the right-wing, traditionally 'law and order' parties that appear to benefit from acts of public violence.
In 2004, nearly 200 people were killed in a massive attack on Madrid’s public transport system a mere three days before national elections. The conservative government, strong supporters of the U.S. war on terror, was unseated and replaced by leftists who vowed to pull troops out of Iraq.
Israel, as always, offers a contrasting lesson. There, the issue of public security is more binary, and the clear trend is that Palestinian violence sends the public relentlessly rightwards. That’s certainly the trajectory it has followed ever since the second intifada.
But the devastating Hamas suicide attacks that swung the 1996 election away from Peres and the peace camp were clearly intended to further its rejectionist agenda: to derail the Oslo peace process by bringing the right to power.
We can’t attribute any such clearly defined motives to those who carried out these three London attacks. It’s ridiculous to consider whether a May or a Corbyn government would best suit Islamic State or whatever offshoot or fan group claims the attacks.
Both the Tories and Labour have expressed public horror at the idea of exploiting these atrocities for political gain, but of course that’s exactly what all parties have done.
Labour managed to land a few good punches following the Manchester attacks by pointing to Tory cuts to police force numbers, although counter-terrorism funding has been ring-fenced.
They’ve also done well arguing that it’s a bit rich for May to now announce that, in terms of violent Islamists, “enough is enough” when she was Home Secretary for six years, the government minister tasked with ensuring public security, a position she held right up to her election as premier.
May is already vulnerable, her campaign eroded by wooden, some say robotic, performances and her unwillingness to take part in public televised debates, while Corbyn has managed to use his kindly, geography-teacher demeanor to good effect.
Corbyn’s keynote foreign policy speech delivered after the Manchester bombing, though crazily simplistic in its analysis, also played well with the public.
"Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries and terrorism here at home," he said.
The argument that attacking Muslim-majority countries stokes terror attacks at home is appealing, and certainly an easier option than unpicking the multifaceted causes of extremism. Complex rebuttals don’t fly well in the last stage of campaigning.
His focus on the perfidies of close UK ally Saudi Arabia, although straight out of the Russian/Iranian playbook, have also proved popular.
The polls, for what they’re worth, show the gap between the parties continuing to shrink.
Whoever wins on Thursday will interpret the attacks as having a decisive effect, but this will probably be a convenient fiction.
Corbynites may blame bloodlust or fear-mongering if Labour is pulverized, while the Tories will crow that Corbyn’s perceived softness on terror led to his downfall.
We can prepare for an election post-mortem that will be even more bitter than the campaign. Terror has left Britain bloodied yet unbowed, but the next government, shuffling towards Brexit, will have to reunite a country left suspicious, confused and divided over its future direction.
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