Iain Dale and me

The Tory blogger demands conformism

I have an admission: prior to joining the New Statesman in June, I disliked Iain Dale. I know, I know -- I can hear you now: "What's not to like about Dale?" and "Isn't he the top political blogger in Britain, a man adored by left and right?"

I didn't know him. I'd never met him. I'd only seen him on the television, reviewing the papers, and perhaps I was turned off by a familiar combination of Tory smugness and arrogance.

Then I met the man (during a BBC radio discussion in which we both took part) and found I liked him. He seemed friendly, charming and down to earth. Refreshingly, admirably and, I would argue, wisely, he chose not to join the online Islamophobic witch-hunt against me back in August, and linked to various pieces I wrote (for example, on the cult of Vince Cable). As recently as July, he was writing the odd piece for the NS.

But since the Kaminski row, Dale has turned on the New Statesman, and on James Macintyre and me.

In a recent post, Dale writes:

There's talk of hung parliaments, even of a Labour victory. Labour's cheerleader in chief, James Macintyre, has gone into overdrive, predicting a small Labour majority. Quite why the New Statesman relies on two political correspondents who are so woefully out of touch with political opinion is anyone's guess.

Forgive me, I'm confused. If, being "out of touch with political opinion" means refusing to follow the Westminster pack, I plead guilty. Or am I not allowed to have independent views, or to make up my own mind? Do we all have to be conformists like him? Perhaps he hasn't noticed that my blog is called Dissident Voice. I like being in a minority. I like having my own views, and not having to borrow them from Polly Toynbee or Matthew d'Ancona or Michael White.

Both the lobby and the commentariat are often wrong. Flat wrong. Take Iraq. Back in March 2003, I opposed the Iraq invasion while "political opinion" -- and, I would hazard a guess, Dale, too -- supported the war. Should I have fallen in line with political opinion then?

Let's take the issue of a hung parliament, since he raises it. In June, in the wake of Labour's worst election result since 1918, James and I wrote that "Labour may well still stand a fighting chance of a hung parliament at next year's general election." Now, Jackie Ashley asks, "But what if there is . . . a hung parliament?" and makes comparisons with 1974. Andrew Rawnsley says, "A spectre is stalking the corridors of Westminster, the spectre of a hung parliament." Peter Riddell says, "Perhaps it may not be so easy after all for David Cameron to win an overall Commons majority." David Owen says a "hung parliament isn't unthinkable".

Spot the difference? That's "political opinion" shifting long after James and I had made our judgement call.

Iain, you can remain a slave to political opinion. James and I prefer to lead it.

UPDATE 1: Iain Dale has responded (if you can call it that!) here.

UPDATE 2: Danny Finkelstein, over on the Times's Comment Central, has weighed in on the hung parliament debate:

I still believe that the next election will produce a Conservative majority. A hung parliament is, however, certainly possible given the ground David Cameron has to make up. And I don't believe we are mentally or constitutionally prepared for the minority rule that could be with us soon.

 

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Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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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.