Why Labour could win in 2015 even if the Tories are more trusted on the economy

In 1997, the Tories enjoyed a 22-point lead over Labour on "managing the economy" but with growth restored, voters decided it was safe to change captain.

The economic recovery has barely begun but David Cameron and George Osborne already appear to be reaping the political benefits. The latest Guardian/ICM poll shows that support for their management of the economy has risen to 40 per cent from 28 per cent last month giving them a 16 point lead over Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. 

With growth likely to be purring along at around 2 per cent by 2015 is it game over for Labour? Not necessarily. It's true that economic approval ratings are frequently a reliable long-term indicator of the election result but it's worth noting the exceptions to this rule. Ahead of the 1997 election, as Balls likes to remind his colleagues, Labour trailed the Conservatives by seven points on "managing the economy" and by 22 points among those who said the issue was important, according to MORI's regular tracker. It was only after the party's victory that it established a consistent lead over the Tories. While voters believed the Conservatives would run UK PLC better, they still preferred Labour after years of sleaze and run-down public services. 

Source: Ipsos MORI 

It's possible, then, that Labour could win in 2015 despite not being trusted over the Conservatives on the economy (just as it leads today). Indeed, if growth returns as strongly as the Tories hope, the voters may conclude that it's safe to change captain now the storm has passed (as was the case in 1997). A Miliband government that would invest more heavily in areas such as housing and jobs and ensure that the proceeds of growth are distributed more fairly may be preferred by an electorate weary of small state conservatism. 

But it would be Panglossian for Labour to assume as much. As things stand, while the party retains a slight but consistent poll lead over the Tories, it is still viewed as less economically competent and its leader as less fit to be prime minister. Oppositions have managed to defy one of those handicaps in the past (as I've noted before, the Tories won in 1979 despite Jim Callaghan's 19-point lead over Margaret Thatcher as "the best prime minister") but I know of none that has defied both. 

It is already clear that the Tories' election campaign will focus on maximising both of these advantages. "Do you want David Cameron or Ed Miliband as prime minister?" they will ask, framing the contest as a presidential one, and "do you want to hand the keys back to the people who crashed the car in the first place?" It is a ruthless and simple message of the kind Labour still desperately lacks. 

Ed Miliband and David Cameron during the service to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey, on June 4, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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.