Boris and Dave bash transport unions to distract from the banks

A convenient distraction from the coalition’s failure on bankers’ bonuses.

Boris Johnson and David Cameron have a joint article in this morning's Sun condemning the rail unions for threatening to strike on the day of the royal weddding.

They write: "[Y]ou can try to drag this country back to the 1970s, to a time when militants held our country to ransom, but you will not succeed."

In reality, currently no union is planning to strike on that day. The Aslef general secretary, Keith Norman, says the question of possible industrial action on the day has not "even been discussed" by the union's executive. But, in the wake of the coalition's capitulation to the banks, Cameron and Johnson have spied a convenient opportunity to redirect public anger towards the unions.

As the Telegraph's Benedict Brogan noted yesterday, the Conservatives fear that the latest round of bonuses will further dent their popularity:

Tory high command wories that if it goes soft on the banks the numbers will get worse. Those who have pressed the coalition and specifically the Chancellor to speak out against banker-bashing are told each time that the coalition has to keep public attitudes in mind. Mr Osborne believes voters loathe the banks and blame them for the financial crisis.

On Twitter, Boris has called for the public to "bombard" Aslef's website with complaints, a useful distraction from his complete failure to secure his long-promised "no-strike deal". As I noted on Monday, there have been more Tube strikes during two and a half years of Boris than eight years of Ken Livingstone. In his 2008 manifesto, the Mayor of London promised:

I will look to reduce the disruption caused by strikes on the Tube by negotiating a no-strike deal, in good faith, with the Tube unions. In return for agreeing not to strike, the unions will get the security provided by having the pay negotiations conducted by an independent arbiter, whose final decision will be binding on both parties. I believe this is the fairest way to ensure that London is not brought to a standstill every time there is a pay negotiation, and to ensure union members get a secure deal.

But when asked in September if he had sat down with union leaders and had his "promised beer" with Bob Crow, the mayor replied: "I have not spoken directly with union leaders but with plenty of people in government." Inviting the public to "bombard" a website with complaints may be an example of the "big society" in action, but isn't it time for the mayor to adopt a more mature approach?

George Eaton is political editor of 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.