On no account let "Ed be Ed"

If Ed Miliband tries to be himself, he will be a disaster.

Aaron Sorkin has a lot to answer for. Ever since he penned episode nineteen of the West Wing progressive politics has echoed to a familiar cry: "Let [insert name of struggling liberal politician] be [repeat name of struggling liberal politician]".

As Ed Miliband wearily takes up arms against his latest sea of troubles, so the plea rings out once more . "He should sack any adviser who tells him to be anything other than himself", the New Statesman's Mehdi Hasan told the Independent. "He needs to "speak human" once again, and show he's not just another politician", said Labour List's Mark Ferguson.

There are two problems with this. The first is that Ed Miliband is just that:a politician. It's all he's ever been. As far as I'm aware, apart with flirting with the idea of playing for Leeds United, (one of the few career paths more treacherous than being leader of the Labour Party), that's just about all he's ever wanted to be.

Ed's problem isn't that the public see him as a politician. It's that at the moment they see him as a bad politician. According to the latest poll of polls he's now running behind Iain Duncan-Smith in terms of voter satisfaction. To be fair, he's also running ahead of Michael Howard, William Hague and Michael Foot at a comparable time in their leaderships. But then none of them had a cat in hell's chance of becoming Prime Minister

When people ask Ed Miliband "not to be just another politician" what exactly do they mean? Be an extraordinary politician. Another Churchill, or Roosevelt? A Gandhi? "Ed, we know you don't do huskies. But have you thought about a salt march?"

Or do they mean pretend to be something entirely different? Ed Miliband the florist. Ed Miliband the check out assistant. Ed Miliband the cabbie: "I 'ad that Progressive Majority in the back the other day. They all wanted to go to north London."

Ed Miliband is a career politician. No amount of pool playing or reminiscing about his dad's removal business is going to change that. The public may not be paying much attention to Labour at the moment, but they're not wandering around in blindfolds.

Which leads to the second problem. If Ed Milband is going to be a politician's politician, what sort of politician should that be? Sorkin would say a bold one. Or at least, Leo McGarry, his fictional chief of staff would: "Our ground game isn't working; we're gonna put the ball in the air. If we're gonna walk into walls, I want us running into them full-speed."

Somehow, I can't quite see those words emanating from Lucy Powell. Actually, I can. But I can't see Ed endorsing them: "Look Lucy, that's a little bit aggressive. I want to move away from that sort of politics. Do we have to run into the wall? Can't we just find a way of going round it. Or taking it down? Carefully. With well paid, decomodified labourers?"

The harsh truth is that if we let Bartlett be Bartlett, he'll be a disaster. In the same way that all politicians who try to be themselves court disaster.

John Major's handlers sent him off to Iraq before the 1992 general election and had him posing in the desert with a machine gun and the victorious British troops of Desert Storm. He triumphed at the subsequent election. As soon as they let him be himself he started banging on about out old maids, bicycles and warm beer, and got annihilated.

How different would British political history have been if Alastair Campbell hadn't ensured Tony Blair kept his mouth shut about religion? Or allowed him to wear that vest?

Let Ed be Ed makes for a great line, but lousy politics. I'm not sure that Labour would be in a better place if it's leader had decided to stick with his pledge to back Ken Clarke's sentencing reforms. Or that his recent highly praised speech on welfare reform would have contained the same sense of purpose had he followed his natural sensibilities and excised passages on those who "dodge their responsibilities" and "cheat".

"We'd all like to say what we think", one back bench MP told me the other day. "It'd be great. I'd love to wonder around mouthing off about every issue that took my fancy. But we've got to show responsibility. Ed's got to show responsibility."

It's easy for Ed to be Ed. The hard part is for Ed to be Labour leader. And harder still for him to be Prime Minsiter.

If being yourself was the criteria for leadership, we'd all be leading the Labour party. But thankfully, it's not.

Bartlett was a creation. A fictional character specifically constructed by a writer who knew his favoured brand of radical liberalism couldn't reach the White House any other way.

Forget Bartlett. It's time for Ed to be Hoynes.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.