An Ed Miliband communications 101

Or, how to avoid car crash radio interviews.

Have a listen to the opening few seconds of Ed Miliband’s 5 Live interview from earlier this week and you learn everything you need to know about his communication problems. And he doesn’t even have to open his mouth.

Firstly, Ed, or those around him, likes to look clever. Academic. Statesmanlike. How fabulous the phrase “Patriotic Industrial Activism" must have looked on paper, how grandiose, the words of an intellectual.

There is a place for such language. It’s usually in some sort of scholarly paper. It’s not mid morning on 5 Live.

Secondly, how long would it take you to answer that question, to explain "Patriotic Industrial Activism" in plain English? Personally, I would have said “Buy British". Slightly facile perhaps, a little over simplistic -- but nevertheless, plain English.

Ed takes 53 seconds to answer. After which, frankly, most people were none the wiser.

I’ve a funny feeling that Ed and the folk around him feel that giving succinct answers using everyday language may be patronising listeners, selling them short. They’re wrong. To my mind it’s language that’s been Ed Miliband’s biggest obstacle in connecting with the public.

David Cameron totally gets this. I’m often struck by Cameron’s use of everyday language to get his message home.

A great example was when he was informing the House of Commons that he had authorised the use of force in Libya, through air strikes. Can there be any more serious subject on which a prime minister addresses the House? I suspect Ed would have said something like “I have judged that it would be prescient at this juncture to intervene to avoid further humanitarian distress."

Cameron didn’t. He said “We’ve acted in the nick of time".

There is a certain irony in the old Etonian using the language we all use on a daily basis to connect with the population at large (in order to downplay his not-of-our-world ness), while the leader of the Labour Party feels the need to talk like a university professor, nervous that otherwise folk won’t think he’s up to the job.

We know Ed isn’t a natural communicator -- who will ever forget his interviews on the public service sector strikes -- but it’s his inability to touch a common nerve that is at the root of so many of his problems. All the abuse he gets throughout the rest of the interview has almost nothing to do with policy, positioning or belief. It’s all based on an assessment that people don’t think he gets it, or isn’t up to the job.

They are not rejecting his intellectual position -- they’re not getting that far.

Most people would grasp the basic tenet of his argument if he said “Buy British". They’re probably not going to spend a great deal of time interrogating the nuanced subtleties of “Patriotic Industrial Activism".

And you cannot sell to a man who isn’t listening.

 

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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.