Thank you for the money: Abba’s Benny Andersson performs at an event to celebrate the group's songs, Hyde Park 2009. Photo: Getty
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Ukip’s women voters, green belt guardians and why Benny from Abba is a feminist hero

Swedish political party The Feminist Initiative has received more than a million kronor from the Abba singer. 

Going on Woman’s Hour is never anything less than a delight, particularly when the next guest has come to talk about post-childbirth incontinence and turns up wielding a plastic pelvis. Luckily, I wasn’t in the studio to treat the Radio 4 audience to my thoughts on bladder weakness but to discuss another type of apparently uncontrollable urge: the desire to vote Ukip. Nigel Farage’s party has sent seven female MEPs to Brussels, so surely it’s time for feminists to hail him as our overlord and stop going on about Godfrey Bloom calling women “sluts” and making jokes about cleaning behind the fridge?

Not quite. It’s long been a quirk of the European electoral system that it delivers more female winners than first-past-the-post. Before the latest poll, 35 per cent of MEPs were women, compared to a measly 23 per cent of MPs in the Commons. I wonder if it’s a mirror of the theory that companies are more likely to pick a female chief executive when they’re on the ropes – we will let women have a crack at talking about fisheries and the butter mountain but best not to trust them with the future of the NHS.

Ukip is cock-a-hoop, or whatever the feminine equivalent of that is, at the figures, although they compare unfavourably with those of the other parties: Labour has 11 women out of 20 MEPs in total and the Tories have six out of 19. A gold star, of course, goes to the Lib Dems, who have 100 per cent female representation at MEP level. That’s because there’s only one of her.

 

Let’s get serious

Anyway, the answer to the question “Is Ukip a female-friendly party?” is currently a shrugged “Dunno”. Not long ago, Nigel Farage ditched the party’s 2010 manifesto, saying it was “486 pages of drivel”. (This is unfair; I liked the idea of making the Circle Line into a circle again.) Since then, the party has been getting by on a truncated version that only really mentions Europe and immigration. Before next year, Ukip must come up with a full slate of policies and decide if it wants to repeal equal pay legislation – which its Newark by-election candidate, Roger Helmer, voted against in the European Parliament last year – and curb “ludicrous” maternity leave rights. As much as its position on Trident or a 31 per cent flat tax rate (previously: no and yes), Ukip’s stance on these bread-and-butter issues will show whether it wants to be a serious party.

 

Country casuals

Recently, I ventured on to Radio 5 Live to talk about building on the green belt, which I suggested was a good idea, it being near places people want to live (ie, cities). You would think I had called for the compulsory extermination of the under-fives. The two main arguments seem to be: a) “What about the brownfields?” and b) “What will we eat if we build on farmland?”

The first is interesting because if there were an easy alternative, you would expect it to have been seized on by politicians and developers alike. Unfortunately, many brownfield sites have poor infrastructure or require decontamination before they can be used for housing. (Also, they are sometimes more biodiverse than boring single-use agricultural land. Save the nightingales!)

On the second point, less than 7 per cent of Britain is urban (10.6 per cent of England, 1.9 per cent of Scotland, 3.6 per cent of Northern Ireland and 4.1 per cent of Wales), so the green belt isn’t making the crucial difference between plenty and starvation. What amazed me most was how many people calling in, by their own admission, lived nowhere near a green belt. It reminded me of the number of people on low salaries who are nonetheless violently opposed to high top tax rates. Clearly we like the idea of rolling countryside. It’s just that four-fifths of us don’t actually want to live in it.

 

Hateful words

The killing of six people in Isla Vista, California, by a man who left a 140-page memoir detailing how he wanted to starve women to death in concentration camps shows how reluctant we are to use the word “misogyny”. Every spree killing is the result of an unhappy mess of factors, plus the means to act on them. But what shook me about Elliot Rodger’s manifesto was not how extreme its language was, but how familiar. It was the language of the rape threats received by many female writers I know and the language of online forums devoted to “men’s rights” and “pick-up artistry”. Women are venal, irrational beasts, deliberately withholding sex to torture men. They are gold diggers. They are “targets” for seduction. It’s their fault they make men angry.

There is a backlash to feminism going on and it is telling unhappy, alienated young men that the rise of women is keeping them down. Reading Rodger’s manifesto, I felt far less relaxed about the cheeky contrarianism of all those male writers at male-dominated magazines and newspapers who are intent on telling their readers that all this wimmin’s rights business has gone too far.

 

Sweden’s super trouper

Further proof that Sweden is cooler than us: it elected an MEP from an explicitly feminist party. Soraya Post is 57 and a Roma – one of the most marginalised groups in Europe. The party she represents, the Feminist Initiative, has received more than a million kronor from Benny out of Abba. Gary Barlow, if you’re reading, feel free to send a cheque to the New Statesman offices. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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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.