Leader: We need a principled defence of the public realm and the competent state

In an attempt to achieve an economically worthless but politically valuable budget surplus, cuts to public services will continue even once the structural deficit has been eradicated – this is unworkable.

When David Cameron and George Osborne first entered office, they presented austerity as a regrettable necessity to reduce the largest budget deficit in peacetime history (11 per cent of GDP). In his 2010 New Year message, Mr Cameron said: “I didn’t come into politics to make cuts ... We’re tackling the deficit because we have to – not out of some ideological zeal. This is a government led by people with a practical desire to sort out this country’s problems, not by ideology.” But in his Lord Mayor’s banquet speech last month, he unambiguously abandoned this stance, speaking of his ambition to build a “leaner” state – “Not just now, but permanently.”

Mr Osborne’s Autumn Statement made it clear what this will entail. In an attempt to achieve an economically worthless but politically valuable budget surplus, cuts to public services will continue even once the “structural deficit” has been eradicated. The result, as the Office for Budget Responsibility stated, is that day-to-day spending will fall to 16 per cent of GDP by 2018-19, the lowest level since records began in 1948.

That this is unworkable was demonstrated by the OBR’s accompanying forecast that health, social care and education will alone account for 12.9 per cent of GDP by 2017-18, leaving just 3.1 per cent for all other services, including housing, transport, defence and the police. Unless the Chancellor intends to privatise the armed forces (defence represents 2.5 per cent of GDP) and abolish the foreign aid budget (0.7 per cent), his target will be not be met. The likelihood is that the next government, in common with all of its predecessors, will raise taxes in the year immediately following the general election. Mr Osborne may insist that the remainder of the deficit-reduction programme will be achieved through spending cuts alone, but he also stated in 2010 that he had “no plans” to raise VAT.

If the Chancellor’s vision is far-fetched, he could still achieve a dramatic reduction in the size and scope of the state’s activities.The Beveridgean model of universal welfare will be replaced by a US-style safety net designed to support only the “deserving poor”. Government will relinquish what remains of its duty to provide affordable housing and higher education, with grants for low-income students replaced by larger loans and tuition fees increased far beyond £9,000. In parts of the country, publicly-funded libraries, swimming pools, youth centres, museums and parks will cease to exist as local authority budgets are more than halved. The social-democratic state that survived the Thatcher years will truly be rolled back.

Faced with this Randian project, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have a duty to provide a principled defence of the public realm and the competent state. But in more than three years of austerity, neither has come close to doing so. Nick Clegg has pre-emptively signed his party up to further Conservative cuts until 2019, while Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have pledged to match Mr Osborne’s current spending totals in the first year of the next parliament.

A much-needed debate about how to fund the state’s activities in an age of reduced growth and stagnant living standards has not taken place. If the Chancellor’s scheduled pace of cuts is to be avoided, around £12bn of tax rises will be required. Measures such as the reintroduction of the 50p income-tax rate, or the imposition of a mansion tax (which Labour has said it would use to fund the reintroduction of the 10p tax rate) do not even come close to filling the fiscal gap.

Mr Osborne’s declaration that the welfare state is “unaffordable” is not one of fact but one of ideology, reflecting his predilection for low taxes. For a wealthy country such as Britain, there are alternative paths available. But, too often, politicians of all parties have encouraged the belief that the UK can enjoy Nordic levels of provision with US levels of taxation. If this was not the case during the boom, it is certainly not the case after the bust. Unless Labour and the Liberal Democrats are prepared to argue for a new model of the state to sustain the services that we collectively value, the danger is that voters, like Mr Osborne, will conclude that there is no alternative.

George Osborne and William Hague at the Conservative Party conference in 2011. Photo: Getty.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Power Games

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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.