Confusion grows over the purpose of the coalition

Coalition 2.0, an attempt to thrash out a joint agenda for the second half of parliament, has been w

They called it Coalition 2.0 -- a working group of ministers and policy wonk Tories and Lib Dems, with the task of thrashing out a joint agenda for the government for the second half of the parliament. Last summer's coalition agreement doesn't contain enough plans to fill up a whole legislative term. Or at least it wasn't meant to, but with sufficient "pauses" along the lines of the recent NHS reform pit stop, they might eke it out for a good few years. That wouldn't look good though and the more enthusiastic supporters of Coalition 2.0 thought it might deliver a second formal agreement. It won't. The whole thing has been downgraded, with one participant telling me recently it is most likely to deliver some vague statement of shared principles after the Olympics next summer. It is a sign of growing confusion at the heart of government about what the coalition is actually for -- the subject of my column in this week's magazine.

On the Conservative side, I've looked at the competition between what I call Romantic and Pragmatic tendencies in David Cameron's inner circle -- those that see the whole project in terms of a grand re-alignment of politics, and those that see coalition more as a means to a Tory end: securing a second term with an outright majority.

That has focused Lib Dem minds on the need to carve out a distinct and positive agenda within the coalition. Party strategists know they won't make any progress with voters by simply watering down Tory proposals, as they did with the NHS reform.

Clegg can hardly build an electoral recovery by casting himself as an iceberg, lurking mostly beneath the surface waiting to sink Tory boats. If the Lib Dems block too much legislation the Tories will denounce them as unfit for office. "There's no advantage to us from stalemate government," says one senior Clegg aide.

How to avoid stalemate was the main subject of discussions at a recent Lib Dem "away day" (technically two days) in Bingley, Yorkshire -- in a conference centre and hotel in a converted Gothic mansion. One detail from that meeting of no great consequence and therefore not included the column: there was a pub quiz to break up the heavy political chatter. The result was close, but I gather deputy leader Simon Hughes's table won. Clegg's Special Branch security protection team also put in an impressive performance, apparently.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former 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.