Politics: just for geeks?

The sad truth: we aren't cool.

Picture the scene, a group of people, lit only by the glow of the TV screen, sit around watching the stats come in. A flurry of excitement is caused by some numbers going up and down on a flashy graphic. This is politics in Britain today, people, and it's not cool.

Tiny turnouts and general apathy point to a society that doesn't care about politics. Those who do have an increasingly niche interest, concerned with the strange behaviour of a select group of middle class white people. In fact, at times British politics bears a striking similarity to Dungeons and Dragons; arcane traditions played out according to strict rules, many involving silly outfits. This isn't how it works in France, or Greece, where politics means the left converging on Bastille, or anti-austerity riots in the streets. The French left had a massive party on a Sunday (a school night!) when Hollande got into power last week. In Europe, politics is (or can be) cool. Why isn't it here?

I realised this in 2010. It had taken so long for anyone to make up their mind that year that even the ultimate geeks had torn themselves away from the TV/computer screen and into the real world. When action finally happened, and Cameron went to the Queen, I was in a pub. We actually asked for them to turn the TV over from football to endless shots from the BBC helicopter hovering over the Mall of cars going to and from Buckingham Palace. It took hours, and there was, obviously, nothing to see. By the time we left everyone else in the pub was fuming, and incredulous. Over the next few months, my friends' eyes started glazing over as I fumed over the latest scandal, or made witty comments about Nick Clegg's falling poll ratings.

Then last week I worked as a poll clerk at the local elections. It became clear, as I added up ballot papers and worked out turnouts in my break, that I was a committed election geek, but worse, no-one else cared, and worse still, no-one actually in politics gets that no-one cares. The 301 people who turned up to vote that day wouldn't have been able to pick the members of the shadow cabinet out of a line up. Things happen that politicians think will be the end of them (Jeremy Hunt, are you listening?) and nothing happens, because most people haven't even noticed. Let's face it, they are all (both sides) a bunch of middle aged, white be-suited men who can't get a stir of excitement out of their wives, let alone the public. Ed Miliband, bless him, doesn't look like he ever went out dancing in his entire life.

In the X-Factor of the London mayoral election, the public chose Boris because they liked the way he looked, the way he swore, the way he occasionally resembles Stephen Fry. Make no mistake, Boris, incredible as it might seem, is cool. In a misogynistic, posh sort of way. And worryingly in an uncool government, that's all he needs.

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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.