Is Clegg's head no longer the price of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition?

Harriet Harman suggests that Ed Miliband would not force Nick Clegg to stand down before forming a coalition with the Lib Dems in 2015.

With another hung parliament looking ever more likely in 2015 (Labour's lead stands at just one in today's YouGov poll), the question of whether Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg could ever work together is being asked again. At one point, it looked doubtful that Clegg would lead his party into the next election, but the Eastleigh by-election, the economic recovery and the wane of Vince Cable's star have combined to create an unlikely political rebirth. 

In interviews at the Lib Dem conference, Clegg, unsurprisingly, left the door open to a partnership with Miliband: "If the British people say that the most legitimate outcome of the next general election would be a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, of course I would be prepared to play my part in that."

But what of Miliband? Back in 2010, when hatred towards the Lib Dems ran raw, he suggested that, just as Clegg insisted on Gordon Brown's departure, so the Deputy PM's head would be the price of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition. He told the New Statesman: "Given what he is supporting, I think it is pretty hard to go into coalition with him."

Asked again, "so you wouldn't work with Nick Clegg?", he replied: "That's right. No."

But when David Dimbleby reminded Harriet Harman of this on last night's Question Time, she replied: 

I'm sure that must be a misquote? I mean, he's worked with him on, for example, tackling the problems of all the phone-hacking and the Tories trying to rig the boundaries, so actually when we've put forward a proposal that the Lib Dems are prepared to support then they do work with us. But we want an overall majority. 

A misquote, as my former NS colleague Mehdi Hasan stated on Twitter, it was not. But it is striking how Miliband's rhetoric towards Clegg has softened since 2010. Last summer, for instance, he told the Independent, "I would find it difficult to work with him", which is some distance from the unambiguous "no" he offered two years before. 

Much will, of course, depend on how great the Lib Dem losses are and how close Labour is to a majority. But judging by Harman's words, it seems the party has decided that it no longer afford to go into the election ruling out any deal with Clegg. 

Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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.