Tories have been ordered to be full of ho, ho, ho this Christmas. Photo: Getty
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Commons Confidential: A shocking secret Santa

Plus: an unexpected gnome.

The Chancer of the Exchequer, George Osborne, is playing Scrooge by threatening permanent austerity, yet word went out from Tory HQ for MPs and candidates to be full of ho, ho, ho. So Andrew Atkinson, the Conservative challenger to Labour’s Ian Lucas in Wrexham, donned the full outfit to play Santa in the Welsh town.

Festivities were moved to the Pentre Gwyn Community Centre after the usual venue, Kingsley Circle, was shut by council cuts. Atkinson is a hard-line deficit slasher so his sack is no doubt full of redundancies, payday loan forms and bedroom tax penalties. The music teacher playing carols nearly fainted with shock at the Tory’s cheek. Lucas needs to buy his wife, for it was her, smelling salts for Christmas.

Lord Palmer’s family pile, Manderston in Berwickshire, boasts the world’s only silver staircase. The convivial aristo, scion of the biscuit family and hereditary peer, is friendly with Labour MPs over the border in Northumberland.

I detect a touch of the Downton in the relationship. The Old Etonian once invited, I hear, Blyth Valley’s rough-hewn Ronnie Campbell to polish the banister. Campbell, an ex-miner, was equally unable to assist when Palmer inquired if the MP knew anybody willing to clean the Edwardian stately home.

The tea room talk is of the strained friendship between Margaret Hodge and Tessa Jowell. The pair were sisters in arms but the London mayoralty has come between them. Jowell’s tossed her hat in the ring while the chair of the public accounts committee hedges her bets. The influential post in the Commons is occupied by an opposition MP, so should Labour win the election, Hodge would be out of one job and free to run for another. Every cloud has a silver lining. For somebody.

Tory, Lib Dem and Labour whips have one thing in common: contempt for the Tory minister Matt Hancock. I hear he’s so despised that the party enforcers share text messages about him. A Tory I’ll decline to identify showed Labour whips a text ordering Tory MPs to huddle around Hancock in the Commons to signal support.

On the edge of Harold Wilson’s grave sits a small, red-hatted gnome. The political editor of the FT, George Parker, spied the garden sentry on a visit to the Isles of Scilly. The figure is, presumably, a tribute to the Labour premier’s dig at the tax-dodging “gnomes of Zürich”, the Swiss bankers. When Cameron shuffles off this mortal coil, a tin of baked beans would be appropriate to commemorate food banks.

What attracted the BBC’s Paul “Are you going to resign, minister?” Lambert to Ukip? There’s the £100,000-plus salary and that’s more than double the money Labour dangled in front of the gobbiest man in TV. 

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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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.