A leader for the Greens?

Considering some fundamental changes to the way the Green Party is run

Today was a big day for navel gazing at Green Party conference – organisational motions were discussed, but one in particular was more exciting than most. I have described before my role as 'Principal Speaker' for the Green Party, and why we don't have a single figurehead or a rigid hierarchical structure, but a pair (male and female) of principal spokespeople. This is what attracts a lot of people to the Greens, but is also something of a barrier to communicating with people who want party reps to have more conventional titles. I come up against this all the time, and invariably find myself using up valuable broadcast time explaining the curious way I have to be described.

For many years, motions to adopt the title 'leaders' or perhaps 'co-leaders' for our spokespeople have been a regular feature of conference. They always fail to pass, but recent votes have often achieved a majority in conference, although not the two-thirds majority needed for a constitutional change.

As a result, this year, a different kind of motion was discussed. Instead of asking conference for a decision on the issue, the motion set out various changes to the constitution - including creating posts for a Leader and Deputy (or alternatively two co-leaders if a pair of candidates wanted to stand as a team) - that would instead be put out for a full ballot of all our members later this year.

As you can imagine, on such a philosophical question, passions within the Greens run pretty high on both sides of the argument, with some people frustrated we didn't take this step 20 years ago when it was first proposed, and others convinced that we should continue to emphasise our differences with the other parties and maintain the flat leadership structure we currently have. I've always been a bit torn on this. I maintain a huge fondness for the idea of having 'Co-Leaders' instead of just one figurehead, as I think that achieves some of both sides' objectives. However, I thought the motion was quite a reasonable one to vote on, and I am very keen to see the matter decided one way or the other at last so we can spend our energies doing more of what we're supposed to do – get elected.

Anyway, to continue the fascinating tale of our internal debate for a while, today's two sessions on the motion were not what I expected. There were many, many amendments submitted (changing a whole section of our constitution was never going to be simple), suggesting changes such as lengthening the timetable for the referendum, setting longer minimum membership periods for leadership candidates, making them paid or unpaid posts, and proposing different lengths of terms and different methods of recall.

Despite the contentiousness, I was delighted that discussion was so constructive. Lots of amendments were simply accepted by the proposers, others were voted in after strong speeches from members that convinced large numbers of people on the floor to change their minds, and in the end we agreed by a relatively comfortable majority to put the amended motion out for ballot.

So, what happens now? A big debate over the next six months, followed by a vote. This won't be anything like one of Tony Blair's 'big conversations'. Every local party has people on both sides of this issue and there will be lots of strong, intelligent banter going on, which will result in every member having their say.

These small insights into conference are probably not very interesting to anyone who doesn't belong to a political party. But, given the fact that the potential change in structure will mainly affect how people outside the party regard us, I'd be really interested in the views of non-members – so please do comment!

Meanwhile, I'm actually more concerned about getting my own big idea of standing a candidate in every constituency at the next general election off the ground. It's not just me thinking that a full slate is an achievable 'good plan', and there are tons of practical as well as political reasons why we should (not least the chance that any state funding of political parties coming out of the Phillips review may depend on votes cast at the next general election). I made this the main point of my keynote address to the party this morning – my first as Principal Speaker – terrifying but it went down well I thought. Any members like to comment on it?

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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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.