Why has Clegg told millions not to vote for the Lib Dems?

The Lib Dem leader's decision to abandon any attempt to win over left-wing voters is bizarre.

ConservativeHome's Peter Hoskin has written a fine post on why the right should stick up for Nick Clegg, which equally functions as a demonstration of why the left should not (unless, as Lenin put it, we support him "as the rope supports a hanged man"). Hoskin notes Clegg's early support for austerity (he pledged that the Liberal Democrats would eliminate the deficit through spending cuts alone, a stance that put him to the right of George Osborne) and his opposition to universal benefits for the elderly. Even when the Lib Dems were still officially opposed to immediate spending cuts and to higher tuition fees, it was clear that Clegg's heart wasn't in it (he simply accepted that his leftish party would not accept a change of policy ). Under the cover of coalition government, he has emerged as the right-leaning politician he always was.

The coverage of his comeback interview with the Guardian inevitably focused on his call for a new wealth tax, but as notable was the contempt he showed for left-wing voters. He told the paper:

Frankly, there are a group of people who don't like any government in power and are always going to shout betrayal. We have lost them and they are not going to come back by 2015. Our job is not to look mournfully in the rear view mirror and hope that somehow we will claw them back. Some of them basically seem to regard Liberal Democrats in coalition as a mortal sin.

Clegg's resigned tone ("they are not going to come back by 2015") is extraordinary. Psephologically speaking, he's almost certainly right, but since when has a politician willfully abandoned so many voters? Rather than traducing the millions who have turned against the Lib Dems (in an interview with the Guardian, of all places), shouldn't he be trying to "claw them back"? When he declares that it's not his "job" to do so, one is tempted to reply, "actually, it is".

At the very least, Clegg could highlight some of the leftish policies the coalition has pursued (a 35% increase in international development spending, a ring-fenced NHS budget, an increase in capital gains tax). But when it comes to voters, the Lib Dem leader appers to value quality over quantity. Like Kurt Cobain, he would rather be hated for who he is, than loved for who he's not.

There is something admirable about such political purity but his MPs, looking nervously at their party's disastrous poll ratings (they are averaging around 10 per cent), will surely question his judgement.

Nick Clegg said left-wing voters were "not going to come back by 2015". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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.