It don't mean a thing, if you ain't got that swing. Photo:Getty
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What if the polls are wrong?

Averaged together, the polls still point to a Labour victory - but the picture is more complex.

Who’ll win next week? Frankly, it’s impossible to tell. When we average the polls together, it appears as if Ed Miliband will be Prime Minister in short order. But the reality is that the polls are diverging, making an average less useful than it appears. ICM, Ashcroft, Survation and Opinium tend to show Conservative leads of varying strength, ComRes an effective tie, while Panelbase, Populus and IpsosMori have tended to show Labour ahead. The question of the election isn’t so much “What if the polls are wrong?” but “Which polls are wrong?”

Labour’s campaigners on the ground are privately less positive than the more positive polls would suggest. The party’s own targeting strategy indicates a less than rosy picture. As I wrote yesterday, the party is still jittery about its prospects in Westminster North, Hampstead & Kilburn and Southampton Itchen, all seats that it held in 2010. Seats that ought to fall into the party’s lap, like Waveney and Stockton South look like more difficult fights than Labour might wish. The party underperformed its poll ratings in the local elections in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014.

That said, that might be as much to do with the lacklustre Labour campaign prior to those contests. This time, Ed Miliband is having the campaign of his life, which you'd assume will help Labour on the day. The bleak forecast of one insider before the start of the campaign – “You cannot make as many mistakes as we will make and not lose” – now looks wide of the mark. Labour's vote, meanwhile, increasingly resembles that of the American Democrats: it's young, diverse, urban and relaxed about turning out in midterm elections. It may be that Labour does better both than the polls and its previous showings over the last five years suggest. 

As for the grim noises being made by candidates in the marginals, that could easily be paranoia.  One Tory MP in a marginal remarks that “the second you relax, you’re dead”, while a Labour MP in a similar predicament says that he “would never be able to forgive myself if I didn’t do enough to hold the seat”. So the pained expressions of Labour canvassers in the marginals could simply be a particularly exacting form of professionalism, although it’s worth noting that the same pessimism doesn’t seem to extend to their Conservative counterparts. But, one way or another, at least some of the pollsters will be left with egg on their faces next Thursday.

 

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

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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.