Labour needs to get serious about Ukip – by not taking it seriously. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Labour underestimates Ukip in thinking purely about its electoral impact

Ukip could prove to be of merely short-term electoral advantage to Ed Miliband; Labour may be in power after 2015, but its principles will not.

Last week, Nigel Farage announced his ambition, not just to be David Cameron's "worst nightmare" but Ed Miliband's as well. The general perception among the progressive media appears to be that Ukip's increasing threat (aptly illustrated by the suspiciously timely resignation of Douglas Carswell) will be a net positive for Labour, making it more difficult for the Conservatives to win the next general election. This is a mistake.

All too often we see politics as being only about the next election. It's not. Politics is about the sort of nation we want. Winning an election is a means to an end. That end is the principles we support becoming the principles that govern our nation. Elections themselves are not defining moments but the inevitable products of public debates. They are won and lost in the collective consciousness, not at the ballot box.

Margaret Thatcher defined the public discourse. Although she herself lost office, every government since, including those comprised of her political opponents, has pursued policies based on the ideology she espoused. Voters view the world according to the paradigm which she established.

Here's an example: most good economists will argue that the financial crisis was caused by a failure of the (private) financial sector. Yet all economic arguments in our public debate are based on the premise that we must cut back on the state. We don't discuss the logic behind this; it's become an irrefutable "fact" of British politics. The "Private = good/ State = bad" paradigm is unsupported by history or economics but every political party conforms to it because it is the paradigm which defines our public debate.

To win elections but, more importantly, to see its principles realised, a political party needs to define the debate. Unless it can do so (as I have argued before) it will always be arguing according to its opponent's terms and thus will always lose.

Ukip may prove to be of short-term electoral advantage to Labour. In the long term, it will push the public discourse further to the right. Labour may be in power after 2015, but its principles will not. A party that is content to maintain power by implementing ideals that it should fundamentally oppose does not deserve to exist.

In the United States some liberals privately welcomed the rise of the Tea Party when it appeared that its effect would be to make the Republican party permanently unelectable. Instead American public discourse was pushed to the right. GOP establishment figures like Karl Rove were made to appear centrist and reasonable, while Democrats were forced to refight old battles on abortion and race.

If Ukip continues on the road to mainstream acceptance, how long will it be before progressives in the UK are forced, once more, to defend hard-won legislation on equalities, employment rights or the minimum wage? Rather than arguing for a better future, the left will be forced to devote all its energy simply to prevent it becoming worse.

So how should the left respond? It's tempting to mollify Ukip voters, acknowledge that they have real concerns about immigration or human rights, in the hope of winning them back into the fold. But history should teach us that pandering to xenophobes only breeds more xenophobes.

Ukip supporters do not have reasonable concerns. The basis on which most positions in support of Ukip are founded are factually inaccurate. Supporting Ukip requires believing things that are simply not true. Pretending anything else will move the political discourse to a place where reality is permanently eclipsed by provocation.

There are real reasons that Ukip voters feel disenfranchised and these should be addressed, but not in the way they are expressed by Farage and co.

In the 2008 election, Obama For America destroyed John McCain's credibility by focusing on the ludicrous positions of his running mate, Sarah Palin. Her most famous statement, "I can see Russia from my house", came from the lips of Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey. Palin's politics were absurd so she was effectively laughed out of office. Ukip should be treated the same way. A party that bases its electoral appeal on ignorance and xenophobia should be a punch-line, not an election contender.

The enemy of my enemy is not my friend. Labour needs to get serious about Ukip. But the only way to do so successfully is not to take it seriously at all.

Sam Fowles is a researcher in international law and politics at Queen Mary, University of London and blogs for the Huffington Post. He tweets @SamFowles

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.