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

Whisper it, but there's almost nothing Labour and the Lib Dems disagree on

Compared to the New Labour years, the degree of policy overlap between the two parties is remarkable.

Yesterday's PMQs bout between Harriet Harman and Nick Clegg was one of the most quietly revealing for months. Berated by Harman over the Lib Dems' support for the NHS reforms, the bedroom tax and the abolition of the 50p tax rate, Clegg chose not to respond by defending his party's conduct or by dismissing Labour as a juvenile opposition unprepared for "grown up" government. Instead, he devoted almost all of his time to condemning the last Labour government: "the party of 40p [tax], sweetheart deals in the NHS, the party of Fred Goodwin, and the party against apprenticeships". 

Clegg's nostalgia for the pre-2010 era is understandable. Back then, the Lib Dems were able to draw a series of progressive and politically beneficial dividing lines with Labour: the Iraq war, civil liberties, tuition fees, electoral reform, tax, banking regulation and NHS privatisation. But owing to Ed Miliband, these differences have expired. In his first speech as Labour leader, which I described at the time as "a love letter to Lib Dem voters", Miliband condemned the Iraq war ("I do believe that we were wrong"), denounced New Labour's approach to civil liberties ("government can itself become a vested interest"), criticised the introduction of top-up fees ("stuck in old thinking about higher and higher levels of personal debt"), the refusal to tax the rich fairly and the "light touch" system of financial regulation ("responsibility in this country shouldn’t just be about what you can get away with.") Far from being the party of 40p, sweetheart deals in the NHS and Fred Goodwin, Labour has become the party of 50p, anti-privatisation deals in the NHS and Glass-Steagall.

Compared to the Blair-Brown years, the degree of policy consensus between Miliband and Clegg's parties is remarkable. The Labour leader's support for an in/out EU referendum following any new transfer of powers from Britain to Brussels (a stance identical to that of the Lib Dems) is the latest in a long list of areas where the reds and the yellows have converged. Both parties now support: 

- A referendum on EU membership the next time any powers are transferred (and support for an "in" vote)

- The introduction of a mansion tax on property values above £2m 

- The reduction of the voting age to 16 

- The removal of Winter Fuel Payments from wealthy pensioners 

- A 2030 decarbonisation target 

- An elected House of Lords

- Greater oversight of the intelligence services 

- Radical devolution from Westminster to local authorities and city regions

- Party funding reform

- An end to unqualified teachers in state schools 

- A ban on for-profit free schools 

- Tougher banking regulation and the potential separation of banks' retail and investment arms 

- A mass housebuilding programme, including new social housing 

- The Human Rights Act

After all of these, the remaining differences between the parties (with the possible exception of deficit reduction and electoral reform) are largely trivial. Labour, for instance, has pledged to reintroduce the 10p tax rate, while the Lib Dems are committed to a higher personal allowance of £12,500. The Lib Dems are resolutely opposed to Miliband's planned energy price freeze. But it is easy to imagine the parties coming to an agreement ("we'll give you your energy price freeze if you give us our £12,500 personal allowance") in the event of coalition negotiations.

While it suits both sides to play up their differences for political purposes (the retention of Lib Dem defectors is crucial to Labour's election chances), the reality is that, beyond the bluster, there is now very little they disagree on. As party president Tim Farron (and the party's likely next leader) told me last year: "I think he [Ed Miliband] is somebody who is genuinely of the Robin Cook wing of the Labour Party, from their perspective what you’d call the 'soft left'. Somebody who is not a Luddite on environmental issues, somebody who’s open minded about modernising our democracy, somebody who’s instinctively a bit more pluralistic than most Labour leaders and a bit more internationalist as well." Certainly it is impossible to imagine Clegg, or any other Lib Dem, ever delivering a Labour-facing version of his 2013 conference speech in which he listed 16 Conservatives policies he had blocked.

What is now clear is that it would be far easier for Labour and the Lib Dems to come to an agreement in 2015 than it would be for the Tories and the Lib Dems to do so. And if, as is possible, both of the main parties win enough seats to form a majority government with Lib Dem support that may prove very significant. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.