Lord Ashcroft warns the Tories: stop banging on about Europe

Conservative donor warns that the Tories will lose the next election if they obsess over Europe.

Lord Ashcroft might rank somewhere between Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch in leftist demonology but, like it or not, his political analysis is usually spot-on. His elegant and passionately sane blog on ConservativeHome this morning is a perfect example. Ashcroft warns the Tories that they must, to quote David Cameron, stop "banging on about Europe" or risk losing the next election.

He writes:

Monday's display was damaging because it suggested to ordinary voters that the Conservatives are far away from them when it comes to priorities - the most important issues facing the country, and their families. The point is not whether they agree with us over Europe: the sceptical Tory view, articulated over many years by William Hague and others, is close to the centre of gravity in public opinion. The question is whether it matters to them as much as other things matter, and the fact is that it does not.

Ashcroft is right. As I noted in my blog on Cameron yesterday, while voters share the Tories' euroscepticism they don't share their obsession with the subject. Polling by Ipsos-MORI shows that they regard the economy (68 per cent), unemployment (30 per cent), immigration (24 per cent), crime (24 per cent) and the NHS (21 per cent) as the most "important issues facing Britain". Just one per cent believe that the EU is the most important issue and only four per cent believe that it is one of the most important issues.

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As the graph above shows, concern with Europe has remained consistently low since 2006. At various points in the last 20 years, such as the UK's withdrawal from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992, the debate over the single currency during the 1997 election and the announcement of Gordon Brown's "five tests" for euro membership in 2003, public concern over Europe has reached significant levels. But barring another significant transfer of powers to Brussels, it seems unlikely to do so again.

Those on the right who argue that David Cameron doesn't talk enough about Europe are the mirror image of those on the left (most notably Tony Benn), who concluded, after Labour's landslide defeat in 1983, that the party lost because it wasn't radical enough. For them, Ashcroft has one message: enjoy the debate but you won't win an election.

He concludes:

Finally, some will say principle dictates that we should spend our time debating what we believe to be important, regardless of the voters (or "the polls", as they usually put it when making this point). In which case, I hope they enjoy themselves. But let's hear no more from them about that majority.

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.