Commons Confidential: Whose gag is it anyway?

Let's see who wants to line up and claim Ed Miliband's “Is there anything he can organise in a brewery?” PMQs zinger as their own work.

Tristram Hunt, the man about town, suave historian and Labour MP for the Potteries, is evidently considered worth three of his party colleagues. The Zac Goldsmith lookalike pulled out of a seminar in London on employee ownership, organised by the right-leaning Social Market Foundation. Chi Onwurah, a shadow business minister, told the assembled policy wonkers that she was standing in for Hunt. What a coincidence, muttered John Woodcock, on sabbatical from the Labour front bench to recover from a fall: he’d been asked to cover for him, too. Most odd, piped up Ian Murray, also in Labour’s business team; the leader’s office had asked him to pop along in Hunt’s place as well.

What had detained Hunt, requiring three substitutes? I trust he wasn’t writing his nice little earner on the poorly Queen that appeared in the next morning’s Times . . .

The Sun’s front page, which channelled Winston Churchill to oppose statutory press regulation, triggered an outbreak of spluttering in the Commons tearoom. Contact details of Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames, the Tory MP for Mid Sussex, were found, I am reliably informed, in the files of News International’s hired hacker Glenn Mulcaire. Fatty is chummy with the Prince of Wales. My snout imagined the doubly outraged wartime leader didn’t know which way to spin in his grave.

Tuckerman, the posh, London-based estate agents, emailed MPs details of a Victorian pad in St James’s, a few minutes’ walk from parliament. The flat has a spacious reception, double bedroom, fitted kitchen and bathroom. “The property is advertised for £390 per week,” Tuckerman said, “but the landlord would take an offer to fall in line with the parliamentary allowance.”

The limit MPs can claim is £335. The housing benefit ceiling for a one-bedroom place is £250. Shouldn’t the cap on MPs’ second homes be in line with that of first homes for the electorate?

Every good gag is claimed by many parents. I was knocked down by the rush of Tony Blair’s staff boasting that they’d come up with his line, “I don’t have to worry about Cherie running off with the bloke next door,” at the expense of Gordon Brown. To avoid impostors stealing the credit for Ed Miliband’s “Is there anything he can organise in a brewery?” zinger that destroyed Cameron at PMQs, I can reveal that the gagmeister was the research star Tom Hamilton. Fraudulent claimants, please form an orderly queue.

Michael Fabricant’s blond weave makes the tweeting Tory look like a poor man’s Boris Johnson. The comparison is cosmetic. A right-whinger swears Mickey, a party vice-chair, appeared to be wearing make-up when he bumped into him in Westminster. The Lichfield Lip hadn’t, I ascertained, come hot-faced from a TV studio. Very hug-a-husky Cameroonism.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Ed Miliband. Photograph: Getty Images

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

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.