The British left shouldn't write off Romney yet

The left underestimated Reagan and Bush. It may be making the same mistake about Romney.

 In August 1999, I wrote a memo for Tony Blair entitled "Why George W Bush Will be the Next President of the United States." It was not especially prescient. I just mooched around Democratic pals in Washington and New York and found that none of them could combine the words "President" and "Gore". 13 years later, on two recent trips to both coasts of America and into the midwest, I found the same overwhelming underenthusiasm for Barack Obama. To be fair, he is not quite Jimmy Carter but the parallels keep surfacing. Obama’s best card is Mitt Romney who has taken some  positions that would put him closer to Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage than the Eisenhower or even Reagan Republicans. Indeed, Jeb Bush, the thinking person's George W, recently told a seminar in Manhattan that both his father and Ronald Reagan would  "have a hard time fitting into today's Republican party" as it has moved so far to the right.

Commentators are queuing up to trash Romney after his foreign tour. It will make no difference in the election. George W Bush famously couldn’t name the president of Pakistan in a TV interview in 2000, while Reagan thought François Mitterrand was a communist and laid a wreath on the graves of Waffen SS soldiers in Germany. Was Romney so wrong when he said Britain was not well-prepared for the Olympics? Boris Johnson got excited whipping up crowd fever against Romney in Hyde Park but he and other Olympic boosters are not doing well as the economic slump in London suggests. In Israel, Romney, promised like every wannabe US president, including Hillary Clinton in 2008, to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. It won’t happen. In Poland, a Romney aide told the press to "kiss my ass". So what? The photo of Lech Walesa holding up Romney’s hand like a champion will do for the Polish vote in Chicago.

In America,  the liberal-left dislike of Romney may not be enough to offset the Obama record. The "Yes we can" élan of 2008 has turned into the "No we couldn't" morosity of 2012. Figures from the US Survey of Consumer Finances show that the median US family is now no better off than 20 years ago. The Clinton and Bush years made rich Americans ever richer but median family income has fallen from $49,600 in 2007 to $45,800 in 2010 under Obama.

Most Americans are just one serious illness or spell of unemployment away from financial disaster. American trade unions, which negotiated the creation of middle-working class America with high wages for industrial, office and public sector workers between 1950 and 1980, are no longer a force. Only seven in a hundred employees in the private sector are unionised. American labour's attempt at a fightback have failed as auto firms and others slash wages and benefits, and threaten workers with closures if they resist.

Democrats and US trade unions will point to the vicious partisanship of Republicans in Congress and the relentless hostility by well-funded right-wing attack outfits and employers. That's true and the elite east coast commentariat fret and wring their hands at the end of bi-partisanship. But a dominant president creates his own political weather and breaks apart opposition alliances. As the fourth volume of Robert Caro's magisterial biography of Lyndon Johnson goes on sale, the necessity of politics as craft, dark art, and forging coalitions is never more evident. Obama is no LBJ.

Like Jimmy Carter persuading himself he could bring the Soviet leader Leonid Breshnev into a relationship with America, Obama thought that  if he pressed the "reset" button with Russia, there would be harmony between the White House and the Kremlin. Putin has made no concessions and still believes America is out to get him. As a result, Obama has been quagmired on Syria, on Iran, on the Balkans, and has no foreign policy pluses to show. He has not moved on the Middle East and his war in Afghanistan drags on and on like the last years in Vietnam. Drone strikes have alienated Pakistan and while Osama Bin Laden is dead, jihadi terrorism isn't. To be sure, Obama hasn't been helped by the worst generation of leaders in Europe since the 1930s.  Unlike Thatcher with Reagan or Blair with Clinton, Obama has little bond with Britain's Old Etonian prime minister who is bored by foreign affairs and believes in economics most Americans think come from Downton Abbey times.

If American tax-paying men don't like Obama, the president does have support from women and from the near half of US citizens who are not Caucasian. Romney's Mormonism is compared to Kennedy's Catholicism in 1960. But cultural issues like abortion and gay rights were not an issue in 1960. Today, the Mormons are resolutely anti-gay. Romney's possible running mate, the Florida senator Marco Rubio, was also a Mormon in his youth though he reverted to Christianity. He is a telegenic right-wing American-Cuban but it is far from clear that Miami anti-Castroism matters any more to the bulk of Hispanic Americans. Romney's endorsement of brutal crackdowns of Hispanic immigrants in Arizona has alarmed liberal Republicans. Romney won the nomination by being as close to the Tea Party as possible. But he will be packaged as a centrist for the election.

Nevertheless Obama may win a second term thanks to his opponent’s flaws more than his own strengths. But no one is as sure as in 1984, 1996 or 2004 that the sitting president will be re-elected. Thirty years ago, America elected a Republican president followed shortly by the arrival of a Socialist president in France. In 2012, might the same happen if in a different sequence? The left here and in Europe thought Reagan and Bush were too thick, too right-wing, and too, well, un-European, to become president of the United States. It may be making the same mistake about Romney.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney before his speech in the hall of the University of Warsaw Library. Photograph: Getty Images.
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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.