Schoolboys to masked murderers. Photo: Getty
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I turned on the TV to find my old classmates had become Isis militants

How it feels to watch the news and see that your old school friends are jihadists fighting with Islamic State.

It's a spectacle that pushes all the right buttons to keep us in captive horror – British citizens going out to join a black-hooded death cult in Syria and Northern Iraq. The situation's grimness alone might be enough, but then there's how media-friendly Islamic State has been, too. Their macabre videos are intended to be as visually striking and fear-provoking as possible. They want to be perceived as something more than run-of-the-mill gunmen, a millenarian juggernaut that is willing to raze the Middle East to the ground and build their future on the ruins. A trigger-happy United States and a tabloid press obsessed with lurid death porn are often only too eager to fuel that characterisation. Because of that, we forget that the estimated 500 British Isis fighters could ever have been normal, once. I'm part of that, as someone who protested the Iraq war and is generally of the opinion that intervening does more harm than good, yet at times I have been pretty sanguine about airstrikes. But I saw a few of these so-called holy warriors in a very different context, five years ago. I was at school with them.

I found out what had happened a few weeks ago, when an old friend linked me to an ITV news clip reporting the death of one British jihadi and showcasing a recruitment video made by another. “It’s Mo,” he said, “and Hamza”, or words to that effect. I watched the clip a couple of times in disbelief. A few explanations ran through my head – it was a prank, the guy in the clip was a lookalike, some mistake had been made. But apparently not. I checked the Facebook profiles of the boys in question. Mo, who is now dead with a piece of shrapnel stuck in his skull, had last checked in at a popular curry restaurant in Notting Hill. The most recent thing on Hamza’s profile is birthday wishes from friends, who I don’t imagine had any idea what happened. In his list of likes is Barry from Four Lions, the black comedy send-up of Islamist terrorism. I've since heard that a third alumnus of my school has gone out there. Still, none of the rest of us can quite believe it.

I took a short video of our school leavers in Year 11. Mo’s on it, and the last thing he says is “Remember me. . . my name’s Mo”. That takes on a much more chilling dimension now. When things like this happen, it’s a cliché to say “I had no idea, he was always such a nice guy”. But it also happens to be true. I didn’t know Hamza all too well, but we did walk the same corridors for five years. Mo was a fairly typical teenager, and a wind-up merchant who delighted in annoying our teachers. He had a strong social conscience (even intervening to stop me getting picked on once) and an infectious cheeky grin. Neither were especially religious, as far as I knew. We had a big Muslim community in the school and they certainly weren’t at the devout end of the spectrum. In any case, my school was the sort of place where being culturally heterogeneous was not something that could last for long. It was the only comp in England’s richest borough, hunkered in between Edwardian mansions and collapsing council estates, in the town of the Notting Hill Carnival, Portobello Market and Kensington Palace. We had just about every race, religion, class background and gender you could think of, and while there were “communities” that stuck together, the boundaries were porous. They had to be.

I say this because we have this image in our head of extremism as something that grows up enclavised and isolated. The right might fulminate at immigrants who don’t integrate and look suspiciously at the most devout or socially conservative Muslims (who ironically probably share similar views to your average Mail reader). The left might talk about disenfranchisement, poverty and social exclusion creating fertile ground for the wrong kind of radicalisation – and these are fair points. But if you’re looking for crippling social exclusion and Luton-style ethnic tensions, don’t go to North Kensington (although it is fair to say that Islamophobia and the politics of reaction can be found anywhere if you look). Regardless, the tenor of public debate has it all wrong. The politicians and the papers stoke up fear of “Trojan horse” scandals (a friend of mine reminds me that some of the Trojan Horse allegations aren’t all that different to what she experienced at Catholic school) and extremist parents. Our school was about as far as possible from junior-jihadi training camp as it is possible to get, and the families are as shocked and disgusted as everyone else is about what has happened. “That’s not my brother,” Hamza’s brother says tearfully on the ITV news clip. He’d lied to his parents and told them he was going to study in Germany.

Mehdi Hasan made the point that a lot of this is about rank stupidity, not extremism. These are the “jihadis” that learn their trade from Islam for Dummies, compare themselves to the rebel alliance from Star Wars and get into Twitter rows about Jumanji and The Lion King. While the core of Isis might be firmly “old guard”, the bulk of their expat fighters – and rumour has it the British are among the most vicious – seem to be young men treating it all like a gruesome gap year holiday. Of course stories such as that of the Isis soldier who posted a picture of himself with a severed head and the caption “chillin with my homie” are disturbing to the core – but it’s also a sign of childishness, not professional guerrilla warfare. At some point we need to break past the mythos of terror and see these ignorant man-children for what they are. We have to stop assuming that “religious extremists” are actually genuine religious extremists. If they were, they might have noticed that most of the world's Muslims are lining up to condemn them. We also need to ensure that Muslims with dissenting opinions who engage in politics aren’t demonised, but that’s another story.

Isis appears to be new, to have sprung from nowhere – largely thanks to foreign fighters. Its destructive and brutal nihilism seems to have grown out of the apocalyptic conditions of the Syrian civil war, and an Iraq bloodied by invasion and sectarian battles. Among all of that, we have the phenomenon of the angry young man. History is littered with adolescent males socialised into cultures of machismo, with tension and energy to burn. History is equally littered with military leaders who take advantage of this, corrupting the minds of such young men and sending them to their deaths. When Isis’s recruiting sergeants twisted the minds of my schoolmates and turned them into killers, they’re repeating an age-old process. The people that are callously butchering aid workers and journalists aren’t doing so, to my mind, out of unreconstructed medieval barbarism, but out of arrogance and foolishness made dangerous by the weapons and power handed to them. Understanding that must be part of the key to being better able to prevent them from preying on our young people.

They are our young people. Britain can’t simply burn passports and refuse to let Isis fighters back in. The ones who come back legally with the same names and passports are unlikely to be the ones planning to blow something up. We have to take responsibility. At the simplest liberal level, British citizens should face British justice, no matter their crimes. If someone turned these average teenagers into killers, something can turn them back. Already reports abound of disillusioned would-be fighters wanting to come home. By now it could be a post-December 1914 moment, where these young men are realising that running around killing people is not actually half as fun as their recruiters made out.

I don’t pretend to have the answers. I still don’t know how a friend I hadn’t spoken to in five years went from schoolkid to masked murderer, and paid the price with his life. Above all, I’m still shocked and deeply saddened by it, and these are collected thoughts rather than a coherent response. But I don’t think any of us are going the right way about finding out the answers, either. 

This article first appeared on nathan-akehurst.blogspot.co.uk, and is crossposted here with permission

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.