While the Tories head right, the Republicans are beginning to modernise

The GOP is embracing immigration reform and is under grassroots pressure to reverse its opposition to gay marriage.

When staring down the barrel of a gun, most political parties seek drastic change to reverse their electoral fortunes. Such is the case with both the Republicans in the United States and the Conservative Party here.

The former has sought to alter its image following a presidential election it should have won. The Tories are still reeling from not winning an outright majority in 2010; still disgusted they share power with the Lib Dems; still concerned that a resurgent Labour Party and UKIP will render them useless in 2015.

These right-leaning parties have taken different routes in order to become winners. One has become more reactionary, peddling its old messages in a drastic attempt to excite the base; the other is accepting that the political parameters are shifting and that it needs to modernise its message.

Yes, that’s right; the Republicans are becoming more liberal than the Conservatives. The Tea Party had its day in the US in 2010; now it’s having its day in the UK in 2013. Two major issues – gay marriage and immigration – clearly show this shift in conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic.

Gay marriage, an issue many in Britain thought had been resolved, once again came to the forefront due to rebellious Tory MPs. One doesn’t need to go far to witness the dread in Conservative eyes at the issue and what it could mean. Gerald Howarth yesterday declared, "There are plenty in the aggressive homosexual community who see this as but a stepping stone to something even further." One can dismiss this as the ramblings of a backbencher, but members of the cabinet have their own gripes: Welsh Secretary David Jones said that gay couples "clearly" could not provide a "warm and safe environment" in which to raise children.

The GOP may not seem as if it is leading the charge in terms of marriage equality, with the Republican National Committee voting to reaffirm the party’s commitment to upholding the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. Yet there are growing calls for it to embrace gay marriage to attract younger voters. While in Britain Tory activists complain about Cameron’s stance and protest against the reform, grassroots Republicans in the United States are doing the exact opposite: they’re mobilising to embrace gay marriage.

When Rhode Island State Senate passed a same-sex marriage bill in April, all five Republicans in the chamber voted in favour. They had been extensively lobbied by the American Unity Fund, a Republican advocacy group that pushes its elected officials to embrace the gay equality agenda. Contrast what fund organiser Paul E. Singer told The New York Times with the words of David Jones above: "The concept of gay unions fits very well within our framework of individual liberty and our belief that strong families make for a stronger society."

Embracing change is something Conservative Party members appear unwilling to do. A letter signed by 30 present and former local party chairmen ignored the fact that more than 60 per cent of the British public have consistently supported same-sex marriage. It read: "The Prime Minister's bizarre drive to ram this legislation through Parliament, without any democratic mandate and without the support of party members has been a disaster and has driven thousands of voters to Ukip." Do they believe that if put to the vote, the UK would side with their stance?

This focus on the electoral advantages of supporting gay marriage brings us to the immigration debate, something that, alongside withdrawal from the EU, has been a staple of the UKIP manifesto.

One difference between Tory activist attitudes towards immigration and gay marriage is that a tougher stance on the former is supported by large sections of the public, whereas their stance on the latter is a vote loser. While in the US, the GOP is embracing immigration reform to allow illegal migrants to become citizens, in Britain, our public discourse has taken a negative turn. Whereas Tory activists are the Tea Partiers when it comes to gay marriage, the British public is increasingly becoming the Tea Party when it comes to immigration.

A NatCen Social Research back in September showed that British attitudes towards immigration had  hardened over the years, with 51% wanting to see immigration levels "reduced a lot", a rise of 12% since 1995. Britons focus particularly on illegal immigrants. Recent Pew Research in the US shows almost 75% of Americans believe that there should be ways for illegal immigrants to stay within the country legally. The United States, a country born through immigration and proud of it, clearly has a different perspective on the matter – but now the GOP, a party whose immigration line was previously similar to that of the Conservatives, is embracing immigrants as potential voters.

In his New Yorker article "The Party Next Time", Ryan Lizza detailed the growing non-white American electorate and how traditionally red states, like Texas, were, in demographic terms, becoming more like blue states: growing numbers of Hispanic, African-American and minority voters who tend to lean Democratic. While some conservatives on Fox News bemoaned the decline of white America, others realised the need to approach these growing minority bases.

This is particularly important in Texas, a huge state whose large number of electoral colleges is needed by every Republican presidential candidate. Steve Munisteri, the chairman of the party in Texas, told Lizza: "You cannot have a situation with the Hispanic community that we’ve had for forty years with the African-American community, where it’s a bloc of votes that you almost write off." As Republicans begin to transform their approach towards Hispanics and other minorities, Conservatives in Britain are beginning once more to bemoan immigrants, pander to UKIP over the EU, and vocally oppose gay marriage. Worrying,  large sections of the public also agree with some of these stances.

The British press always loves to focus on the ridiculousness of America: its gun culture, its capital punishment, its racism. Yet as we have laughed and ridiculed those across the pond, we have become blind to the fact that as the GOP has started to move away from its own loony past, the Tories are becoming the new heirs of Sarah Palin and her dropouts.

Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal speaks during the second day of the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) March 15, 2013 in National Harbor, Maryland. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kiran Moodley is a freelance journalist at CNBC who has written for GQ, the Atlantic, PBS NewsHour and The Daily Beast.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.