Notes from Notting Hill: a Labour councillor's view of one of London's wealthiest boroughs. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Notting Hill notebook: a Labour councillor doing politics in the Royal Borough

Andrew Lomas is new to the borough of Kensington and Chelsea as a Labour councillor. Here are his first impressions of canvassing in one of London's wealthiest areas.

Save money, buy a Bentley

Kensington and Chelsea has the reputation of being a playground for the wealthy global elite. As a new Labour councillor in the borough, it sometimes seems that the ruling Tories enjoy playing up to the image: this is, after all, a council that funds the only municipal opera company in the country and saw its (now former) leader justify his extensive use of the Mayoral Bentley on the grounds it saved on taxi fares. There is also no reticence from the Mayor about cracking open the bubbly when the occasion merits it, something that this particular Bollinger Bolshevik can only applaud. That said, decanting new members to the Mayor’s parlour for champagne in the aftermath of May's local elections – directly after an induction talk from the council's legal officers warning about the pitfalls of accepting free hospitality – was not entirely without irony.

Getting elected, getting the beers in

Getting out the vote on election day can be a slog and sometimes fate intervenes to tell you to have a break. So it was this year: mid-afternoon approaching, I started down a new street.

First Door:           Can I speak to your wife?”

                 “She died six months ago…”

                 “Oh God, I am so sorry”

Undeterred, I pressed on.

Second Door:      Rings doorbell, baby starts crying, door opens

                “Are you kidding me? I just got her off to sleep, what do you want?”

Avoiding the temptation to say I was the Conservative candidate, I apologised profusely and scurried away.

A few steps from the third door, I looked down at my clipboard to see a previous canvasser had written “BIG DOG” in red biro as a warning. This was quickly confirmed by basso profundo notes barking out a message that seemed to say, “go have a pint and a sit down.” Five minutes later, I was sitting in the Earl of Lonsdale contemplating the supreme wisdom of man’s best friend.

Maiden speeches and multi-millionaires

In Foote’s Nocturnal Revels, a brothel-keeper remarks that a maidenhead was “as easily made as a pudding.” If only maiden speeches were as easily made. However, the planning system – while not exactly providing a rich seam of comic potential – did provide the opportunity to break my duck and speak against plans to allow a hospital wing to be turned into luxury flats. Such a position was apparently controversial: indeed, readers may not be aware that there is a grave shortage of luxury properties in Kensington and Chelsea for dodgy foreigners to launder hot money much-needed inward investment. That one proposed alternative use would create a wing for cancer patients only added to the controversy. Who will speak up for the poor, oppressed oligarchs being denied the chance to own a multi-million pound pad of their own?

That said, rather than rush to make a maiden speech I could have instead followed the example of one of Foote’s companions. George Augustus Selwyn was famous for a 44-year parliamentary career in which he managed to avoid making a single speech. (Selwyn was also a cross-dressing bisexual who dabbled in necrophilia. Visiting a dying Henry Fox, he was refused admission. When Fox learned of this he joked: “If Mr. Selwyn calls again, show him up. If I am alive, I shall be glad to see him, and if I am dead, I am sure he will be delighted to see me!” On second thoughts then, perhaps not an ideal role model...)

Irritable Vowel Syndrome

On the subject of maiden speeches, there was a degree of sympathy for the new Conservative councillor for Earl’s Court Fenella Aouane following an otherwise solid debut. While most members were quick to congratulate Cllr Aouane’s effort, there was unfortunately less consensus from those gathered on how one actually pronounces “Aouane”.

Andrew Lomas is a Labour councillor for Kensington and Chelsea (Colville Ward). He tweets @andrewlomas

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.