Labour MPs do not regret the outcome of the Syria vote

The party was right to demand full evidence should precede any decision - Cameron was in a rush to prove himself a world leader.

As world leaders are gathering in St Petersburg, the dust is still settling in Parliament after the sudden recall of the Commons last Thursday and the debate on Syria.

In an attempt to hide his own failings, David Cameron has tried to argue that Ed Miliband U-turned last week by opposing military intervention and that Labour MPs now regret the outcome of that vote.

Both of these claims are simply untrue.

The Labour leader and shadow foreign secretary made it clear back in May that serious questions remained unanswered about David Cameron’s suggestion of sending British-made arms to the Syrian opposition. So it should have come as no surprise that our approach to any military intervention would be similarly measured.

The truth is that the outcome of last week's vote reflected great unease among the public about future military intervention in Syria, given the experience of both Iraq and Afghanistan, but was also a product of the arrogance and incompetence of the Conservative leadership. Having worked in the government whip's office, I cannot imagine how they got themselves into that mess.

Labour believes it is crucial that the government plays an active role in finding a solution to the Syrian conflict. A new diplomatic initiative is urgently needed. Cameron and other leaders should insist that this is put on the formal agenda of the G20. We have also called for the establishment of a contact group on Syria which would involve countries which have taken different sides in the conflict.

The debate about military action risks overshadowing the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Syria and the wider region. The UN estimates that over two million Syrian refugees have now fled to neighbouring countries. The UN and its partners in June appealed to the international community for £3bn for Syria relief operations this year. Yet only 40 per cent of this fund has so far been received. As the second largest donor, the British government is well-placed to put pressure on others to deliver on their promises.

Labour MPs are extremely concerned about the horrific situation in Syria. None of the colleagues that I have spoken to this week regret demanding that the full evidence should precede any decision and that we weigh carefully the case for military intervention. Nor was voting against the government motion last week a decision they took lightly. Cameron was in a rush to prove himself a world leader but he fell down through characteristically abysmal party management, the lack of a compelling argument and poor judgement.

Stop the War protesters demonstrate outside parliament before the vote on possible military action against Syria on 29 August. Photograph: Getty Images.

Emma Reynolds is MP for Wolverhampton North East and former shadow Europe minister.

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.