The Lib Dems moved on from Huhne a long time ago

Party activists are tired of being told that there is such a paucity of Lib Dem talent that the former Energy Secretary leaves a vacuum behind him.

Twelve months and two days ago I was sitting in the broom cupboard the BBC uses in Millbank for its less than stellar guests, waiting to pronounce on what would happen to Chris Huhne should the DPP decide to prosecute, when the news came through that the case was indeed proceeding to court.

"Oh brilliant," said the BBC researcher who was with me. And then remembering that I may not think this was the absolutely best news I’d ever heard added "oh, sorry".

And of course, this whole 368 day merry-go-round has been the gift that kept on giving for the media, with the recurring theme that it’s an absolute nightmare for the Lib Dems.

It’s really not.  It’s an absolute nightmare for Chris Huhne, I grant you, and I imagine only the hardest heart can read those texts between him and his son and not feel some sympathy for him. And for a party already struggling with a few trust issues, finding out  that one of your former leading lights has been economical with the actualité over and over again is not ideal.

But most in the party, while sorry to see a man of Huhne’s undoubted skills brought down in an ultimately needless way, moved on a while back. We get a little tired of being told there is such a paucity of Lib Dem talent that Chris's departure leaves a vacuum behind him. Ed Davey has moved seamlessly into the Energy Secretary’s seat, culminating in last month’s launch of the Green Deal.

And let’s not forget, if it wasn’t for the Christmas post in 2007, we’d be looking for a new leader right now, not just a new member for Eastleigh. In some ways we’ve had a lucky escape.

For us now, the coming by-election is an opportunity as much as a threat. A test of just how the general election is likely to play out in 2015. Here we are, mid-term in government, opinions polls at an absolute nadir – yet we’re the bookies' favourite to retain the seat. Would we really want to be fighting Eastleigh right now if we had a choice? No. But the party goes into the by-election enthusiastically and optimistically.

I’m sure journalists and media researchers were jubilant that the Huhne story took yet another unexpected twist yesterday morning. But for many in the party, we’d mentally navigated that particular bump in the road a while ago.

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

Former Energy Secretary Chris Huhne prepares to address journalists at Southwark Crown Court after pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.