“Vote Yes to damage Cameron”. A winning message?

Peter Mandelson and Alan Johnson urge Labour supporters to vote Yes to AV to hurt David Cameron.

With the Alternative Vote badly behind in the polls, Labour's big beasts have turned negative. In an interview in today's Independent, Peter Mandelson dispenses with high-minded arguments for reform and urges Labour supporters to vote Yes to "damage" David Cameron. He says:

Labour supporters need to use their noddle and ask themselves why Cameron is fighting so hard for a No vote. He's fighting for his party's interests but also to protect his own leadership. Labour has a chance to inflict damage on both. Cameron has been forced to intervene, to turn it into an intra-coalition partisan scrap in order to mobilise Tory support and Tory-supporting newspapers.

It's an important intervention, not least because the referendum is likely to be determined by Labour votes. As I've pointed out before, while Lib Dem voters are overwhelmingly in favour of reform (83 per cent to 17 per cent) and Conservative voters are overwhelmingly opposed (84 per cent to 16 per cent), Labour voters are split exactly down the middle (50 per cent to 50 per cent).

The Prince of Darkness may hold little sway over the electorate but his call to give Cameron a bloody nose, if taken up by the wider Yes campaign, could yet shift some votes in the final days of the campaign.

It's a message echoed today by Alan Johnson, who tells the Guardian: "What Labour voters need to ask is who wants them to vote No most. It's the Tories. They are bankrolling the No campaign because they know they have most to lose from a fairer voting system."

It won't be long before the Yes campaign is accused of diving into the gutter but there's an important distinction to be made between negative campaigning, a legitimate political tactic, and telling outright lies, as the No to AV campaign has.

In reponse to Mandelson, we can expect the 125 Labour MPs calling for a No vote to point out that they, and not the Tories, would now suffer under AV. The most recent YouGov poll on the subject showed that while Labour would win a majority of 60 under first-past-the-post, this would fall to 34 under AV. But such psephological considerations are of little importance to the Machiavellian Mandelson. As he points out, a Yes vote would lead to Cameron being branded a serial loser by his own side:

Labour people need to question why Cameron is suddenly so desperate for a No vote. Because a Yes vote would send the Tories into convulsions and greatly weaken him. Right-wing Tories have already been gravely warning it would make Cameron a "lost leader". That is something Labour supporters should bear in mind as they consider their vote.

History teaches us that the Tories rarely tolerate losers for long.

Add to this the growing fear of an early election under FPTP, which a cash-strapped and policy-free Labour Party would struggle to win, and a Yes vote starts to look like the rational choice for Labour tribalists. It remains to be seen, however, whether all of this is enough to offset the party's overpowering loathing for Nick Clegg.

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.