Has Ed Miliband gone far enough in his devolution promise? Photo: Getty
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Ed Miliband’s Constitutional Convention: is he letting a crisis go to waste?

The Labour leader has responded to David Cameron’s ideas for constitutional change with a plan of his own. But does it go far enough?

Ed Miliband has responded to the Prime Minister’s post-referendum speech with his own plan for a constitutional shake-up. While David Cameron’s proposal for English votes for English laws was expected, as I predicted at 3am this morning, what the opposition’s would be was less clear-cut.

It’s a tough situation for Miliband, whose party – which could be governing in 2015 – has far more Scottish seats than the Tories’ one representative over the border. This makes the West Lothian Question a particular pain for the Labour party, who could end up being in charge of Britain, but significantly weakened when it comes to voting through their own legislation.

To add to the pressure, Miliband and key members of his team, such as the policy review chief Jon Cruddas MP, have been proposing that powers be further devolved to the regions for some time. For example, Miliband gave a big speech in April this year promising “the biggest economic devolution of power to England's great towns and cities in a hundred years”. With devolution now a fraught part of the national conversation, and his party having devolution on its manifesto, Miliband cannot delay nor dilute any of his plans.

So he’s come up with what he calls a “Constitutional Convention” for the UK. This aims to address the need for further devolution in the UK by rooting the debate in its nations and regions. These debates will bring together not only elected representatives, but also ordinary people. As laid out nice and clearly by LabourList, Labour’s plan – which will be set out in the coming weeks – will involve each region in the UK producing a report outlining recommendations, which include:

  • How sub-national devolution can be strengthened
     
  • How the regions can be given more of a voice in our political system
     
  • How we can give further voice to regional and national culture and identity
     

This consultation would then be followed in the autumn of 2015 with the Constitutional Convention itself, which would determine the future of UK-wide devolution.

In a speech following his arrival at Labour party conference in Manchester, Miliband laid out this plan, saying that he didn’t want to use “this moment to be used for narrow party political advantage”.

Opinion among Labour insiders on Miliband’s approach is mixed. One source tells me their view is that it’s “a sensible approach” for Miliband not to go all-out in attacking Cameron, or make hasty plans to rival those of the governing party. “There’s no point being bounced into responding to Cameron when he just looks increasingly desperate,” they tell me.

However, there is also a lack of enthusiasm among some in the party’s ranks, because Miliband hasn’t gone far enough. One source close to his frontbench tells me there’s a definite feeling of “don’t let a good crisis go to waste” among MPs who want further English devolution. From what they’ve heard of this Convention, they don’t see it tackling the huge disaffection there is with Westminster on both sides of the border. This echoes what Tory chairman Grant Shapps says of Miliband's plan: that it "would kick this vital issue into the long grass".

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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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.