To win in 2015, Labour must reject Conservative austerity

Arguing that the party will be "tougher than the Tories" risks letting the Conservatives back into the game.

If the old maxim that whoever sets the agenda wins is true, then David Cameron is in even greater trouble than the polls suggest. Ed Miliband has led on numerous issues from Leveson to Syria and is defining the terms of debate again with his defence of living standards. His call for an energy price freeze has succeeded in reviving Labour's fortunes, with the Tories responding with their own pale imitation on water bills.

But if Labour has won the battle, how can it win the war? With wages down by an average of £1,500 a year since David Cameron became Prime Minister and prices outstripping earnings in 39 of the last 40 months, a clear break with austerity is needed. Yet the Tories intend the next parliament to be marked by the toughest years of cuts yet. A taste of just how bad things are going to get was provided by an unlikely source. The Conservative chair of the Local Government Association predicted councils will go bust after the next round of severe budget cuts in 2015-16.

Alternatives are needed and that’s why the Labour Assembly Against Austerity has been established. Its launch conference this Saturday will look at the further policies needed to develop the agenda around defending living standards as an alternative to the Tory plan to deepen austerity. Its launch statement has already won the support over 20 MPs and over 500 councillors and activists.

While Ed Miliband is reflecting the public mood, those in our party arguing that Labour needs to reject policies such as a Living Wage are out of touch with the majority. After years of rip-off energy policies and crowded and expensive trains, the public wants more action against these companies who abuse their monopoly position to win super-profits for the few. From soaring payday loan use to growing NHS waiting lists, millions have a story to tell on how austerity is making life tougher.

Labour has everything to gain by promoting more polices that take on vested interests and the failed cuts agenda. Conversely, arguing that Labour will be "tougher than the Tories", as some shadow cabinet ministers recently have, will let the Conservatives back into the game.

Polls show that Labour has a strong lead over the Conservatives on being best able to provide jobs, keep prices down and improve living standards. It’s by offering a progressive economic alternative to austerity that it can best reach out to a broad coalition of voters left worse off by the coalition.

Cat Smith is Labour PPC for Lancaster and Fleetwood

Ed Miliband with David Cameron during the service to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey. Photograph: Getty Images.

Cat Smith is Labour PPC for Lancaster and Fleetwood

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.