Miliband’s new spinner offers fire and fury

Tom Baldwin is a mad, bad but inspired choice for Ed Miliband’s press supremo.

Tom Baldwin is a mad, bad but inspired choice for Ed Miliband's press supremo. Those proclaiming that the new Labour leader should dispense with a sultan of spin should avert their eyes now. Ed has appointed a cross between Alastair Campbell, Hunter S Thompson and Rasputin.

When he worked for the Times, Tom Baldwin occupied that strange twilight world between hack and spinner. By day he adopted the pretence of loyal Thunderer scribe. But by night, when the bars, alcoves and corridors of Westminster grew dark, Tom Baldwin, New Labour tribune came to the fore.

He was totally unabashed about his support for the party. "I see my job is to keep Labour in power as long as I can," he once told me. It wasn't just the drink talking. Tom is a Labour man. Not as rooted in its culture and history as, say, a Campbell or a Routledge, but a true believer nonetheless.

He was also a brilliant journalist. His skill, which no one else mastered, was to win the trust and intimacy of the Blairite and the Brownite camps simultaneously. This was no mean feat, especially given that his own political instincts pulled him towards Blair, and the Brownite radar invariably flipped to alert mode when it detected someone not firmly anchored within the Brown sphere of influence.

His success was embedded in his innate sense of mischief. He revelled in causing trouble, regardless of the source or the victim. If the Blairites gave him a good story, he would launch it against Brown. If the Brownites responded, as they invariably did, he would send a salvo right back again.

Tom was a gun for hire. But always a Labour one.

When the party was in government, Tom almost became an extension of the Whitehall spin machine. When I was working for the GMB, and running hard against Blair's PFI policy he caught me in the bar. "Just to let you know, we're going to have to have a real go at you and [John] Edmonds. Nothing personal." "The Times?" "Oh no, the government."

His loyalty to Blair reached its peak during the Hutton inquiry. Journalists tasked with reporting the day's events would return to the office to find Tom passionately downplaying the day's most damning revelation: "It's just not a story. It's not a story." When Blair and Campbell were vindicated, so was Tom Baldwin.

His new role with Ed Miliband is apparently yet to be defined. Some reports are that his position will be primarily strategic. Don't believe it. Tom has good political antennae, but he is no blue-skies thinker. He will not be able to rise above the fray.

Ed has selected a spin doctor of the old school. He will want to roll up his sleeves and get stuck in where the bullets and briefings are flying. Tom Baldwin will shoot first and ask questions when the next election's over.

Most importantly, he will bring some fire and fury to Team Ed. At last.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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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.