No to AV’s new campaign is beyond parody

“Do what we say, or the baby gets it.”

There are some things in life that seem so far beyond parody – Sarah Palin's continued credibility, for example, or Michael Winner's Twitter feed – that the sceptic in me keeps waiting for the moment when we all get made to look like fools for taking them seriously. But the longer these things keep going, the more we have to face up to the unsettling probability that actually, they're not a mock-up at all. This is what people really think. Not for a laugh, not just to get attention, but because that's just how they are.

And that's what I keep thinking to myself when I see the No to AV campaign's bizarre range of adverts. I keep expecting someone to say: "Doh! Of course that's not a real No to AV advertisement, you big silly! We'd never put out something as crass to make a political point – what do you take us for, a bunch of jerks?" But that doesn't happen. It's a real advert. It's actually earnest, po-faced, this-is-what-we-think campaigning.

If you've not seen it, I'm sorry to have to bring it to your attention, really. It's a picture of a newborn baby, with the shouty slogan "She needs a new cardiac facility NOT an alternative voting system". The implication is, I suppose, that there's a binary choice – either we have a cardiac facility or a new voting system. There's a pair of scales with electoral reform in one pan and the life of a child in the other. In another advert, we're given the choice between bulletproof jackets for our brave boys in Afghanistan, or an alternative voting system.

Hang on a second, though. Does that mean it's an alternative voting system, or bulletproof jackets for soldiers, or a cardiac facility? If so, who gets to choose that bit? (You could argue that we don't, because the voting system is not proportional enough, and that's exactly what the Yes to AV campaign is about; but that's another matter, and I don't really want to get sucked into the vortex on this one.)

The problem with creating either/or choices on subjects that are slightly more complicated than "tea or coffee?" is that the fallaciousness of the argument can be exposed by simply adding another choice. How about electoral reform, or bulletproof jackets, or a cardiac unit, or a free pint of beer for everyone? Does that change anyone's mind?

AV or not AV, that is the question. What I can't understand is why, when there are reasonable and rational answers in the No to AV camp, such as those put forward by my fellow NS blogger David Allen Green the other day, they are eschewed in favour of "Do what we say, or the baby gets it". It's infantile in every sense, and just seems like shock value for the sake of it, the kind of angry argument that assumes voters don't have a clue and see the whole world as a series of either/or choices.

If this is the quality of campaigning we're going to have in the coming days and weeks, it's no wonder that the issue could fail to grasp the public imagination. Come to think of it, I suppose that a distaste for the whole thing is something that would benefit the No campaign – but, having seen what they've come up with thus far, I doubt they're that smart.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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.