British opposition leader Corbyn attacks Theresa May as election campaigning resumes

Britain's Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn attends a vigil for the people who lost their lives during the Manchester terror attack in central Manchester, Britain, on May 23, 2017.
Britain's Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn attends a vigil for the people who lost their lives during the Manchester terror attack in central Manchester, Britain, on May 23, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn linked British military action abroad to terrorism at home and criticised Prime Minister Theresa May’s government for squeezing police budgets as election campaigning resumed four days after a suicide bomber killed 22 people in Manchester.

The opposition Labour Party leader sought to capitalise on a poll showing the Conservative lead has slipped to 5 percentage points – its narrowest since May became prime minister last July.

Less than two weeks before the June 8 general election, the truce that followed the bombing was ended as Corbyn slammed the government’s austerity policies for weakening the emergency services.

He promised to overhaul foreign policy so it “fights rather than fuels terrorism". 

“We must be brave enough to admit the ‘war on terror’ is simply not working,” Corbyn, a long-time peace activist who opposed British involvement in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, said in a speech in central London. “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, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.”

The pound weakened after the YouGov poll was published. Its results pointed to a dramatic narrowing of the gap that even this month has been as high as 24 points in some surveys. If the swing to Labour were uniform across the country, May would lose seats in the House of Commons, with the Tory majority falling to two from 17, the Times said.

Corbyn’s stance on national security has emerged as a weak point for many voters, and addressing the issue four days after the worst terrorist attack in Britain since 2005 isn’t without risks. 

Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, who sat in the front row at Corbyn’s speech, laid out some aspects of the opposition’s approach in an interview with Bloomberg TV’s Francine Lacqua.

“We think in the end, as well as international intervention, you’ve got to have negotiation,” she said. “If we’re talking about Syria, you’ve got to have real negotiations behind the sponsors of what’s happening in Syria – Iran, Russia and so on.”

She also pointed to the importance of community policing and highlighted cuts that had been made in this area.

“Northern Ireland shows us that the way forward is not just about the military, it’s about engaging communities,” said Abbott. “Supposing the alleged Manchester bomber’s mother had felt confident to approach the authorities and say she was worried about her son, so many lives would have been saved.”

The YouGov poll showed the prime minister is 22 percentage points ahead of Corbyn on the issue of keeping Britain safe from terrorism.

An ICM poll this month showed 44 per cent of voters trust May the most to “protect people from threats at home and abroad” compared with just 14 per cent for Corbyn.

Corbyn’s comments sought to shift the debate toward the impact of austerity on police, prison and healthcare budgets – putting the focus on May’s previous role as home secretary with oversight of the police. Under her watch, the number of police officers in England and Wales declined by about 15 per cent to 122,850 as of September.

“Austerity has to stop at the A&E ward and at the police station door, we cannot be protected and cared for on the cheap,” Corbyn said. “There will be more police on the streets under a Labour government, and if the security services need more resources to keep track of those who wish to murder and maim, then they will get them.”

Cutbacks in funding have made Britain’s prisons breeding grounds for Islamist extremism, Corbyn said, and, adapting a phrase from former Prime Minister Tony Blair, said Britain needs to be “both strong against terrorism and strong against the causes of terrorism". 

“The blame is with the terrorists, but if we are to protect our people we must be honest about what threatens our security,” he said. “Over the past 15 years or so, a sub-culture of often suicidal violence has developed amongst a tiny minority of, mainly young, men, falsely drawing authority from Islamic beliefs and often nurtured in a prison system in urgent need of resources and reform.”

Corbyn, dressed in a black suit and tie, struck a somber tone as he called for unity and determination in facing down the threat of terrorism. The rest of the election campaign should be a demonstration of the benefits of the values of freedom, democracy and community spirit, he said.

The Conservatives hit back, with Security Minister Ben Wallace calling Corbyn’s speech “inappropriate and crassly timed". 

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said Corbyn’s intervention makes the choice for voters “even starker". 

“It’s between Theresa May, acting to protect our national interest and keep our country safe, and Jeremy Corbyn, who is simply not up to the job,” Fallon said in a statement. “He and his team come from an extreme and ideological world that is too quick to make excuses for the actions of our enemies and too willing to oppose the measures and people that keep us safe.”

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats also restarted their national campaigns on Friday. The UK Independence Party did so on Thursday, saying May should share part of the blame for the Manchester bombing deaths.