Cameron on the Andrew Marr Show: articulate but vague

The Conservative leader is a showman, but he is still weak on policy

Having just watched David Cameron on the Andrew Marr Show, I feel a little as if I've just witnessed a conjuring trick at a children's party -- puffs of smoke, but no real magic.

As expected, the Conservative leader was articulate, polished and smooth, but also slippery and frequently vague, failing to give conclusive answers to the big questions.

In a studiously calm tone of voice, he repeated the words "modern" and "compassionate" ad nauseam, invoking the spirit of Tony Blair when he said:

I haven't made these changes some wheeze to get elected. This is who I am; this is what I am.

But he didn't actually explain what exactly it is that he is. As Marr said at the end of the interview: "I still don't know whether you are a radical or a central manager."

The focus was on message and image, rather than conviction or ideology. For example, Cameron used the "very, very frank, and clear, and positive" Conservative commitment to ringfence the NHS budget as evidence of a reformed party. This rhetoric describes the image that the party hopes to convey with the pledge, but does not offer any detail about why it has ringfenced health spending, or how it will deal with the implications. In response to Marr's suggestion that this could force cuts of up to 20 per cent for other departments, Cameron fell back to his default position: "I don't know the figures, but at least we're admitting there will be cuts."

Similarly, when Marr pushed Cameron on George Osborne's scathing criticism of government plans to increase National Insurance, the Tory leader made a virtue of vagueness. Unable to commit to reversing the NI increase, Cameron declared: "This shows that we're being very disciplined -- we will not pledge to get rid of it until we work out how." He defended his confusion over marriage tax breaks on the grounds of "responsibility", too.

Of course well-thought-out policy is desirable, but it seems that this notion of "responsibility" is being invoked as a smokescreen to disguise a simple fact: the Conservatives don't have all the answers. Repeat something enough, after all, and eventually it will stick.

Disappointingly, Marr didn't pick up the issue of inheritance tax, though Cameron himself made a nod to it when he said that Labour was sending an anti-aspirational message: "Don't leave money to your children." The Tory leader utterly refused to engage with issues that were embarrassing to him. He interrupted Marr to speak about his "strong team" when the presidential style of that giant poster was mentioned, and when asked what Lord Ashcroft thought of the pledge that all peers should be UK taxpayers, he said: "He's very happy about it."

Cameron did make a few policy announcements, aimed at small businesses. These include reducing the time it takes to start a new business in the UK, making insolvency levels more lenient to stave off bankruptcy, and legal reforms to allow everyone to start a business from their homes. He also said that the Tories would impose an annual cap on immigration and tighten up the student visa system.

But these are relatively small measures. Cameron said he prided himself on bringing the Tories away from fringe issues and into the mainstream debate on areas such as health and education, but this is irrelevant if he does not engage in any sustained and detailed way.

His appearance today confirmed what we already knew: he is a showman, but policy is still a weak point for him and his party. Labour must subject these spectacularly vague statements to proper scrutiny, as it did with the marriage tax proposals before the disasters of last week took hold. Retrieving that momentum may be the only way for Labour to save itself from a crashing defeat.

 

PS: Having blogged several times about The Poster of our boy Dave, I must give special mention to his (pre-prepared, I would guess) joke about the airbrushing fiasco: "I didn't have anything to do with it, but Samantha did say to me, 'If that was airbrushed, get your money back.' "

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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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.