Lord Ashcroft's marginals poll gives Labour and the Lib Dems reasons to be cheerful

Labour has a 14-point lead in the 32 most marginal Tory-Labour seats, while the Lib Dems are just three points behind the Conservatives in the eight most competitive Tory-Lib Dem seats.

After the return of economic growth and the narrowing of Labour's poll lead prompted some Tories to talk of a "glide path to victory", Lord Ashcroft's marginals poll has provided a much-needed dose of realism. The survey of the Conservatives' 40 most vulnerable constituencies shows that the defection of Tory supporters to UKIP means that Labour now enjoys a 14-point lead in the 32 seats where it is in second place, compared to a national lead of just five in Ashcroft's poll. In short, the party is gaining support where it matters most. Labour is on 43% (down one since 2011), the Tories are on 29% (down six), UKIP is on 11% and the Lib Dems are on 8%. That lead is large enough for Miliband's party to win the 32 most competitive Con-Lab marginals and a further 66 off the Tories if the swing is replicated elsewhere, putting it on course for a comfortable majority.

But it isn't just Labour and UKIP that have cause to be cheerful; there's also some rare good news for the Lib Dems. In the eight most marginal Con-Lib Dem seats, Nick Clegg's party is just three points behind David Cameron's, with a swing of only 0.5% to the Tories since 2010. The Conservatives are on 32%, with the Lib Dems on 29%, Labour on 18% and UKIP on 12%. For the Lib Dems, it is further evidence that their vote is holding up where they are competitive. Rather than merely defending their existing 57 seats, the surge of UKIP (which draws around 60% of its support from 2010 Tories) means that the Lib Dems could yet hope to dislodge the Tories in seats where they are vulnerable.

The poll will gladden Labour hearts and darken Tory ones but it's important to remember, as Ashcroft says, that it is "a snapshot", not a prediction. It tells us what would happen were a general election held today, not what is likely to happen in 2015. Governments invariably gain support in the run-up to a general election as voters stop treating opinion polls as a referendum on the government (2010 was typical of this), so Labour needs a large cushion of support to be confident of victory. A similar poll conducted by PoliticsHome in September 2008 suggested the Conservatives would win a landslide majority of 146 seats, while another, carried out in October 2009, pointed to a Tory majority of 70. Just seven months later, Cameron was left with no majority at all. In other words, 18 months out from the general election, only the most optimistic Labourite or the most pessimistic Tory would treat this poll as a reliable indicator of the result.

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

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.