Natalie Bennett's gaffes give Labour hope. Photo: Getty
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Natalie Bennett, Labour's secret weapon?

Labour think that Natalie Bennett's poor TV performances will hand them victory. Funnily enough, that's what the Conservatives think about them.

Get Natalie Bennett on the telly! That’s not the cry coming from the Green party’s press office, but from senior Labour strategists.

They think that, away from the spotlight, the Greens’ unlikely leader is dangerous because “she’s whatever voters want her to be”, as one puts it.  “There are people voting Green because Ed is anti-immigration” one organiser explains to me, “But there are just as many because they think he’d ruin the economy”.

When people imagine Bennett, she is free of the so-called ’3 Es’ that organisers say stop people voting Labour – “expenses, the economy, and Ed Miliband” – she can’t claim expenses because she’s not an MP, she won’t ruin the economy because she won’t win, and she’s not Ed Miliband. “But when she’s interviewed, she is actually even worse than  Ed,” the same organiser says. “I think if Caroline [Lucas] was still leader, we would be in the absolute ****.”

Bennett, in contrast, lacks passion,  and added to her dubious highlights reel this morning with an uncertain performance on the Today programme, when she once again failed to explain how the citizens’ income would work and threw some easy headlines to the right-wing press after favouring a less than steely response to Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.

“Nicola [Sturgeon, leader of the SNP] is great and we wish she was on TV less,” an insider explains, “Leanne [Wood, the leader of Plaid Cymru] is awful and is on TV a fair amount. Natalie Bennett is a joke but people don’t see enough of her.”

As Siraj Datoo writes this morning over at BuzzFeed, Labour will not attack the Greens directly – in fact,  staffers on the party’s anti-Green unit are at pains that it be described as anything but an “anti-Green unit” – but they’re perfectly happy for their left-wing rivals to be roughed up by other people.

That she can’t explain the basic income – an idea that has support from across the political spectrum, ranging from Philip Collins, a former Blair aide, in the centre, all the way out to Friedrich Hayek on the right – without sounding as if she’s been invited into the studio by accident strengthens that view.

It gives Labour two reasons to despair that it now looks highly unlikely that the TV debates will happen at all; firstly because it deprives that party of the opportunity to dispel perceptions that Ed Miliband is cut from an inferior cloth to David Cameron, but, perhaps more importantly considering the threat that the Greens play to Labour’s chances in the marginals, it will mean that voters see less of Natalie Bennett.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

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.