Margaret Beckett by Dan Murrell
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Commons Confidential: Margaret Beckett’s naked truth

“I can’t speak to you now. I’m getting picked up in ten minutes and I have no clothes on.” Plus the price of Axelrod. 

Parliament’s bar staff are under orders to ply MPs and peers with more alcohol. They have been instructed in new booklets to implement what is known in the trade as “upselling”. So, when an MP asks for a glass of wine, the correct response is to offer a large one. The peer in need of a livener will be nudged into buying a double gin and tonic. The authorities had discussed instilling a spirit of temperance after an inebriated Eric “Rambo” Joyce headbutted and punched Tories in Strangers’ Bar. That’s gone out of the window in an effort to cash in on thirsty politicians.

The Beast of Bolsover was unhappy to find only the front wheel of his bike chained to a cycle rack in parliament. The other two-thirds had been nicked. The great bike theft was carried out 20 yards from a police box. Dennis Skinner’s mood wasn’t improved by an official notice affixed to the remaining wheel – telling him it was parked in the wrong place.

The Tory election strategist-cum-Chancellor, “Sir” George Osborne, the Lizard of Oz, Lynton Crosby, and the No 10 spinner Craig “Crazy Olive” Oliver were spied by an eagle-eyed snout outside Mail on Sunday Towers with the paper’s Old Etonian editor, Geordie Greig. It’s a safe bet the Tory campaign cell wasn’t in Kensington to discuss Nigella Lawson’s recipes or fashion shoots in You magazine. Ed Miliband should avoid bacon butties in public. The Conservatives are banking on the right-wing press in the election.

Sticking with Miliband, the Labour leader was thrilled to chat with the Royal Navy veteran Mark Radley, 89, who had served on HMS Hilary with his father. The vessel was the command ship for Juno Beach on D-Day. Labour spin doctors privately acknowledged that it was a shame Mr Radley had never met Miliband Sr.

As an excuse, the former foreign secretary Margaret Beckett told the naked truth. Called by a young reporter seeking a quote on the death sentence passed in Sudan onMeriam Yehya Ibrahim for refusing to renounce her Christian faith, Beckett answered: “I can’t speak to you now. I’m getting picked up in ten minutes and I have no clothes on.” Mercifully, the call was by phone, not Skype.

Labour’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, refused point-blank to let the party’s NEC know how much it is wasting – sorry, spending – on Obama’s former adviser David Axelrod. Could it be higher than the mooted £250,000 to £300,000?

My informant was insistent, so his claim that the Mail fuddy-duddy Simon Heffer allegedly once lay on the floor to minimise his flabby chin in a photograph taken for a newspaper picture byline falls firmly into the category of stories too good to check.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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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.