What does the Oldham result mean for the coalition?

The Lib Dems hang on to their share of the vote – but at the cost of their coalition partner.

Yesterday's by-election was a strong win for Labour – that much is obvious. Debbie Abrahams's share of the vote was not only up 10 points since the general election, it was also a bigger majority than Phil Woolas gained in 1997. But what does it mean for the coalition parties, whose joint share of the vote dropped from 58 per cent in May to just 44.7?

The shadow foreign secretary, Yvette Cooper, told the Today programme that it represented a "verdict" on the coalition: "[People] feel worried about their jobs; they feel very angry about VAT."

She may have a point. Sunder Katwala notes that the swing from the joint Lib Dem/Conservatives to Labour was 11.8 per cent, similar to that shown in current opinion polls.

Indeed, it was the senior coalition partner that really took a hammering, finishing with 10 per cent less of the vote than it secured in May. The Conservative Party chairman, Sayeeda Warsi, tried to minimise this. "First of all, the turnout was low," she said. "Secondly, this is a by-election, and thirdly we started this by-election in third place."

It is true that the Tories have not held this seat since 1995 – but the lacklustre campaign (during which David Cameron got the name of the Conservative candidate wrong) will have done nothing to help. While the matter is not enough in itself to cause a rebellion from the Tory right, it will certainly fuel discontent.

Meanwhile, Nick Clegg has been quick to declare that the result will "confound" critics by showing that the Liberal Democrats remain a "strong, united, independent party". Indeed, although the Lib Dems lost by more than 3,500 votes (compared to just 103 last May), the fact that they did not face annihilation, as widely expected, will mean that it feels like a victory for them.

Over at the Guardian, Andrew Sparrow suggests that this result "show[s] that, with a strong local candidate, the party can hold its vote". I'm not convinced. The circumstances in this by-election were exceptional, given the conspicuously half-hearted campaign fought by the Conservatives.

The Lib Dems certainly benefited from Tory losses, something that is unlikely to be replicated at the next general election. According to a Populus poll of the constituency, 34 per cent of Tory voters said they would switch to the Lib Dems, while Mike Smithson estimates that about two-thirds of their votes went to the party. Apart from anything else, the Lib Dems will be hard-pushed to retain a strong and independent identity over the course of four years.

We must be wary of drawing too many conclusions from a single by-election. Overall, it is very positive for Labour. Not only are there signs of a swing towards them, but a spotlight has been cast on the difficulties that will face the two coalition parties come the general election.

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.