Cameron is for turning

The government’s cuts are worse than Thatcher’s, but Cameron and co are vulnerable to opposition.

In the run-up to the general election, Labour made headway when the Tories were forced on to the ground of cuts and the risk to the economy – and moved backwards when the Tories forced Labour on to the ground of the deficit and cuts. Now that the reality of the cuts and the threat they pose to recovery and a decent society is starting to become apparent, the Tories are experiencing attrition at the polls.

The forest sell-off and other, smaller but significant U-turns – such as over the Booktrust programme – show Cameron and Osborne are vulnerable to opposition and desperate to cling to as much of their electoral base as possible.

It is obvious why.

One, because the government's agenda is so brutal that it knows it cannot fight on all fronts at once, and needs to remove unnecessary noise and rows. Its problem is that there are so many cuts and reckless decisions that when one hole in the dam is plugged, another bursts open.

Two, because what the government fears most is that many more of those on middle incomes and even some on higher incomes will conclude that the government is wrong, out of touch and cutting too far and too fast.

The government fears that significant parts of its own potential electoral base may be turned against it. The forest sell-off was so damaging because it united opinion right the way through to parts of the country that should usually be Conservative-supporting. Ed Miliband's decision to make the forests campaign a priority was right and shows how it is possible to define the centre ground on Labour's terms.

Three, because, despite fighting a general election campaign against a party seeking an unprecedented fourth term after the worst economic crisis since the Second World War and with a prime minister on the ropes, David Cameron did not win the election. His government is fragile and lacks a mandate for its actions.

Cameron's speech demonising multiculturalism and the Muslim communities, on the day of the EDL march in Luton, was a distraction from the cuts that are hurting the majority. Similarly, the renewed attack on pay levels in the public sector is a distraction from how the bankers are sitting pretty and how the rich are being protected at everyone else's expense.

Here in London, Cameron's midterm electoral test is already hoving into view, with mayoral and Assembly elections a little over a year away. New figures published today show that just as Cameron and Osborne are squeezing the majority, so London's mayor has been focusing on protecting bankers and financiers. Over the course of one 12-month period, Boris Johnson held more meetings with bankers and the financial services industry than with the Metropolitan Police – and considerably more than he spent in publicly accountable meetings and press conferences.

His meetings with the bankers even outnumbered meetings with government ministers.

My message to tomorrow's cross-party Progressive London gathering is this. Yes, the economic situation is bad, and is damaging the lives of millions. Yes, the government's actions are harming public services and our quality of life. But our job is to stand up for the vast majority, ensure we are united, and work to prevent the Conservatives deflecting the agenda on their terms. And we should be clear that the government's own weaknesses mean there is everything to be gained from campaigning and organising on that basis to push them back.

Ken Livingstone is a former mayor of London. He will be speaking at "There is an Alternative – Protecting London, Opposing Tory Cuts" tomorrow at Congress House. For more information and to register in advance, click here.

Ken Livingstone is the former Mayor of London.
Photo: Getty
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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.