A wet and slimy creature, and a dead fish. Photo:Getty
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Nick Clegg: not the best, not the worst. Just what we're stuck with

Clegg’s tactic for the election is to pitch his party as the necessary bulk needed to eke out a full government. Much like whoever did the budgeting in the Conservative manifesto, the Liberal Democrats are here just to make up the numbers.

Have you ever made a stew and realised that it’s woefully inadequate to feed the number of people for which it is intended? Or it’s managed one meal but won’t stretch to another, so you’re forced to pad it out with a tin of beans. Any old beans will do. Any bulky, flavourless carbohydrate.

Nick Clegg is that tin of beans.

Clegg’s tactic for the election is to pitch his party as the necessary bulk needed to eke out a full government. Much like whoever did the budgeting in the Conservative manifesto, the Liberal Democrats are here just to make up the numbers.

For all his claims that he doesn’t want “to prop up the two-party system”, propping it up is the all Clegg can possibly do. The Liberal Democrats used to present a legitimate third option; now even they will only offer you Labour or the Tories. They’re attempting to drive voters from smaller parties to the Big Two in the hope that they can attach themselves, limpet-like, to whomever can form a government.

It’s partly this reason why the policies of the Lib Dems simply don’t matter in this election. A party without policies, without personality, is a better coalition partner; it’s why you don’t dilute orange squash with gravy. Plus, the less they can talk about their manifesto, the less we are reminded of their headline policy from 2010. One is not inclined to vote for a man with an enormous £27,000 albatross visibly hanging around his neck.

Neither coalition with Labour nor the Tories would bring the Lib Dems true partnership, only watered down versions of whoever’s knee on which they sit. The Lib Dems do not propose to share government, merely to create a weaker version of someone else’s. Clegg explicitly wants to move policies to “centre ground, right in the centre, bang in the middle”, but who wants this? This is the reason margarita pizzas are always disappointingly served at social occasions. The point of democracy is not to please everyone by creating some mimsy, mealy-mouthed, middling government. If Clegg wants to end two-party politics, thinning out the policies of another party does nothing to achieve that. Only a government that represents all of the elected parties proportionally actually ends the two-party system. (I accept it is conceivably a little late in the day for Clegg to take this task on, but I suspect he might have some free time coming up.)

With Ukip a threatening streak of beetroot piss across the polls, the Lib Dems have become the anti-Ukip, the protest vote that vaguely helps the democratic process continue, but doesn’t drift in any particular direction. Damn him with faint praise it may, but if Clegg has one thing going for him - and he may - unlike Nigel Farage, a large proportion of the population don’t think he’s a dangerous lunatic. The Lib Dems have recognised that while few people might purposely vote for them shoring up a larger party, a lot of people would very strongly vote against any government borne aloft on Ukip’s shoulders.

Farage and Ukip’s election strategy is to be as flavoursome as possible. A deeply unpleasant flavour, but flavoursome nonetheless. Clegg meanwhile, dangles on his zipwire, the desperate image of a Head of Year trying to win over disdainful Year 11s on a post-GCSEs outing. One might call it tragic, but then you never caught Oedipus having a quick go on the Zorbs.

Now the Lib Dems paint him in a different pose, promising the Tories a heart and Labour a brain. (Ukip are presumably more than happy to help Dorothy go home.) I suspect that perhaps they could have thought this literary allusion through better, for now we have Clegg as the Wizard of Oz: a little man hiding in a cubicle, pretending to be more powerful than he is. An ineffectual balloonist, repeatedly foiled by a little dog. A huckster. A self-confessed humbug.

In 2010, I truly thought Clegg would change British politics. He did, just not in the way we suspected. Or necessarily wanted. He is desperately clinging to his party and his party is desperately clinging to its seats. For all he has and has not done with the Tories, I still do not quite believe Clegg to be a bad man. Just a very bad wizard.

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.