David Cameron during the 2010 leaders' debates. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why the Tories might demand the Greens are included in the TV debates

They hope the inclusion of Green leader Natalie Bennett would boost her party at the expense of Labour and the Lib Dems. 

For months, the Conservatives have responded to calls from Labour and the Lib Dems to agree to a repeat of the TV election debates by saying that they are unwilling to begin negotiations until after the conference season. This has aroused the natural suspicion that the Tories, who partly blame the 2010 debates for their failure to win a majority, are seeking to prevent them from happening at all. 

It is the fear that the debates would advantage one or more of his opponents that explains Cameron's hesistancy. Labour figures regard them as an opportunity for Ed Miliband to speak directly to the country, unmediated by a hostile press, and as a means of countering the Tories' financial advantage. Having performed credibly against Cameron at PMQs in his four years as leader of the opposition, they are confident that Miliband would surpass expectations. As the papers demonise him as the most dangerous man in Britain, voters may warm to the moderate figure who wants to freeze their energy bill and build more homes. It is Cameron, as both the Tories and Labour recognise, who has the most to lose. 

In an attempt to end the impasse, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky News have published a joint proposal this morning. They suggest:

- One head-to-head debate between David Cameron and Ed Miliband - the two leaders who could become prime minister - co-produced by Sky News and Channel 4 and chaired by Jeremy Paxman. 

- One debate between Cameron, Miliband and Nick Clegg, produced by the BBC and presented by David Dimbleby.

- One debate between Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Nigel Farage, produced and broadcast by ITV and chaired by Julie Etchingham. 

The most notable point is the exclusion of the Greens. Like Ukip, they have one MP (although Farage's party may soon add another in the Rochester and Strood by-election), and have polled as high as 7 per cent in some recent surveys (sometimes ahead of the Lib Dems), but the broadcasters are unwilling to make room for them.

This contrasts with the plan floated earlier this year by Cameron, which envisaged one debate between the five main UK parties (including the Greens) and one debate between himself and Miliband. Cameron said then: "I'm very keen to examine all the formats that we could have and I've suggested that perhaps we should have one debate with all the parties in, so that everyone can have their say, and perhaps we could have a debate where the two people who could actually be prime minister debate directly with each other.

"I don't think you could have a party like Ukip, without an MP, without the Greens, who have got an MP. So there are quite a lot of issues that have to be ironed out."

As several Tories told me at the time, there is a specific incentive for them to ensure the Greens are included. They hope that the addition of leader Natalie Bennett would boost her party at the expense of Labour and the Lib Dems, creating a split in the left-wing vote to match that on the right. 

In response to the broadcasters' proposal, No.10 has said: "We note the request and we will respond accordingly." It is worth asking whether Cameron will demand the inclusion of the Greens as a condition of the debates taking place. 

Meanwhile, Farage has welcomed the announcement, while leaving open the possibility of a second debate featuring him. He tweeted: "Decision is better than it could have been. If political landscape continues to change we would expect and ask for inclusion in 2nd debate."

But the Lib Dems have responded much less favourably, criticising the proposed exclusion of Clegg from one of the debates. A spokesman said: 

The Liberal Democrats have long argued that the debates last time round were of huge benefit to our democratic process and engaged millions of voters.

The Liberal Democrats therefore welcome the fact that the broadcasters are seeking to make progress to ensure that the debates happen again in 2015.

The Liberal Democrats, like the Labour Party, have publicly said that we would be prepared to sign up to the same 3-3-3 system we had in 2010.

We do not accept the proposal that the Liberal Democrats, as a party of government, should be prevented from defending our record in one of the TV debates.

That is the case we will make strongly in the negotiations that will now take place and we urge the other parties to join us around the negotiating table without excuse or delay.

George Eaton is political editor of 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.