Commons Confidential: Why did David Cameron try and leave Nick Clegg out of the TV debates?

PLUS: Gunfight at the TUC Corral Mk II.

Chumless Nick Clegg will be dismayed to learn that his Conservative line manager, David Cameron, attempted to get him left out of any 2015 TV election debates. I hear that Tory and Labour spinners both suggested excluding Mr Middle Man during initial discussions, Labour on the grounds that the ConDem coalition should have a single representative and the Cons because, well, they don’t like what Lenin might call a useful idiot.

Broadcasters are growing frustrated at the refusal of Westminster’s three largest parties to agree in principle to repeat 2010’s three live debates in 2015. The foot-dragger-inchief is Cameron’s mouthpiece, Craig “Crazy Olive” Oliver. The stroppy ex-BBC man believes Cleggmania cost Cameron a majority, so, I’m told, favours a single TV debate if he can’t pull the plug. Telly bods are mulling over how to break the deadlock. Watch this space.

Crazy Olive’s really a herbivore in the political jungle but strives to emulate Alastair Campbell, a true carnivore red in tooth and claw. A colleague of Olive’s called him Malcolm Tucker without the swearing. The broadcasters – BBC, ITV and Sky – complain that he undermines accountability by wrapping the Prime Minister in cotton wool, offering pooled clips as he shields his chap from interrogatory interviews. Word reaches your correspondent of an unintentionally revealing Olive riposte to those who accuse him of mollycoddling MONTAGE BY DAN MURRELL the people’s toff. “That’s unfair,” he wailed. “Cameron did Test Match Special.”

Na h-Eileanan an Iar’s MP, Angus MacNeil, should get out more in Whitehall, or at least buy an A-Z. The SNP-er was late for a meeting between the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, and a delegation from the Outer Hebrides on a 1,000-mile round trip to discuss wind turbines. MacNeil, eight years in the job, was forced to ask a policeman the way to the Energy Department and then couldn’t find the right office. His lights were on but there was no one at home.

To the Lib Dumb jamboree in Glasgow. Nick Clegg developed a cult of the non-personality by speaking so often, even he must have been bored by the sound of his voice. The exhibition area was smaller than your average village fete. A party stall flogging badges and magnets of individual MPs struggling to look statesmanlike sold a steady flow of Sarah Teathers. The Member for Desolate Central reminds them of when the party was supposed to care about poor people instead of making people poor.

Ed Miliband will hope to avoid a rerun in Brighton of the gunfight at the TUC Corral along the coast in Bournemouth. The private meeting between him and union leaders was, by all accounts, worse than was first thought. The GMB’s Paul Kenny sustained fire for five minutes with a lecture on the values of solidarity and collective action, with Miliband’s interjections brutally swept aside. Sounds like old times.

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

But come on, Nick looks lovely behind a podium. Photo: Getty

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 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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.