Is it better for parliament to be distrusted or irrelevant?

The more the public knows about parliament, the less it seems to like it.

Parliament should fear irrelevance more than distrust.

So said Lord Kirkwood, expressing concern that overturning feelings of insignificance among the public is more difficult than a feeling of anger or betrayal. That was the response to Ipsos MORI data used at last week's annual launch of the Hansard Society's Audit of Political Engagement.

It will be worrying for politicians to see that, in a year where we found record levels of interest in politics and more people saying they know about politics and parliament than ever before, that satisfaction with parliament has fallen to the lowest level recorded.

It seems that, contrary to what we normally find, the more the public gets to know about politics and parliament, the less it likes. While only a quarter (27 per cent) of Britons are satisfied with the way parliament works, what seemed to worry the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Kirkwood is that, for the first time ever, more people have no opinion either way – the metaphorical shrug of the shoulders – about parliament's performance than were satisfied with it.

Indeed, only one in three people can correctly name their MP. While this is in part because of the high turnover of MPs following last year's election, even in 2009, when MPs had been in office for four years, less than half of the public knew the name of their MP.

Is it right that distrust is easier to overcome than irrelevance? MPs are fighting a losing battle in persuading the public that they are trustworthy – since 1983 they have been the least trusted profession along with journalists, with only around one in five trusting politicians to tell the truth.

The important question is not whether it is easier to overcome irrelevance or a lack of trust – but more pertinently, is it better to be distrusted than irrelevant? Here the answer is a resounding yes. The general attitude towards politicians tends to be one of "They're all the same", or "I wouldn't trust any of them". But often specific politicians are given more trust than "politicians in general" – especially the local MP.

On the other hand, it is far more dangerous for parliament to be deemed insignificant to the public. After all, parliament exists to represent the people and look after their interests. If the public is ignoring parliament and finds it irrelevant, not only will politicians find it harder to increase trust, but they will also find it harder to be effective. For many, MPs are not who they first turn to when they need help (they are often seen as a last resort). And only three in ten members of the public believe that parliament is "working for you and me". Who then is it working for?

This view that we, the public, are somehow disconnected from the political class is worrying for the future of politics. At the same event as Lord Kirkwood was Hazel Blears (the former Labour communities secretary), who spoke of her concern that people are being turned off wanting to take part in politics. Even community activists who do a great deal of local work do not see elected office as something that is "for them", she said. This attitude perhaps explains, or indeed is perpetuated by an increase in the number of spads and "policy wonks" in parliament.

Lord Kirkwood is right to fear irrelevance. Parliament and politicians need to be relevant to the public. The reverse is also true. Despite increased interest and knowledge, there is a noticeable lack of any increase in terms of political activity among the general public. It appears to be a vicious circle. The onus is on politicians to break it.

Tom Mludzinski is a research executive at Ipsos MORI, the social research institute.

Tom Mludzinski (@tom_ComRes) is head of political polling at ComRes

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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.