Question Time's studio audience. Photo: Getty Images
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The Left must speak to us all, not just our own aspiration

I was an "ordinary voter" during the election campaign. It gave me a terrifying window into the state of British politics.

In Labour’s post-defeat analysis, the most striking thing I’ve heard is Jon Cruddas on the simple, but fundamental point that the series of micro-policies the party strung together did not form a coherent whole. What was missing, he said, was an ‘overall, coherent, animated sense of who we are.’ In old fashioned times this was called an ideology, but one assumes that nowadays such terminology would frighten the horses. Bizarrely in fact, virtually anything overtly political seems to be perceived extremely scary, as I discovered during my pre-election stint as an ‘ordinary voter’ on various broadcast panels and programmes.

In their quest for ‘ordinary voters’ the broadcast media needs to demonstrate both ordinariness and balance, and the way they go about this also serves as a handy (if depressingly sheep-like) barometer of the national mood, or more precisely, of their perception of the national mood. And so, pre-show priming invariably involved an assessment of the percentage probability of which way we panelists were likely to vote and what issues were important to us.  So far so good. However it soon emerged that we had been selected for our personal circumstances and predicted responses, rather than for our political thinking. As someone running a social enterprise I was there to talk about VAT and business rates rather than the need to get rid of Trident, and whilst I wasn’t exactly gagged for sounding off about that, along with the shame of food banks and the dismantling of the welfare state, I did get several nervous ‘heads up’ that this type of talk was too ‘left wing’ and was therefore disrupting the carefully constructed balance. In order to keep to the ordinary agenda it would be better if I focused on issues that affected me.

This is extremely telling. In their role as barometers of the national mood, the message from the broadcasters is that the ordinary concerns of ordinary voters are largely personal, that people vote about things that directly affect them.

This is why food banks are deemed to be such a marginal issue – the percentage of people who actually use them is tiny, so what is everyone else bothered about?  Once you start talking about the social, economic, and political effects on the rest of society, not to mention a concern for the people who have use them, you’ve gone into ‘politics’ and spoilt the pre-constructed balance as well as over stepping the mark for an ordinary person.

When the broadcast media follows this path it ends up with ordinary people doing exactly what Jon Cruddas said of the Labour Party – they focus on a series of disconnected micro policies, largely domestically based, rather than an overarching direction and vision built on an analysis of how we got where we are. As it is ordinary people who vote, and who are the subject of the much vaunted focus groups and polls, which are apparently the main feeding ground for policy makers, you can see how reductive the whole process is.  Add to this is the frenzy over key marginals and the debate becomes ever narrower, especially when the broadcasters complete this unhealthy cycle by reading it off as ‘the national mood’ and reflecting it all back again.

This affects the left far more than the right, largely because the right has positioned itself as the status quo, and apart from a few platitudes about Queen, country and hard working families, it doesn’t need a thorough going narrative about who and what they are  - because they already are, they are the ‘establishment’ and it’s up to the challengers to come up with a compelling reason to get them out. Which clearly didn’t happen. Part of the problem is that politics itself has become depoliticized, reduced to a shopping list of promises, with the main parties parading as the personal shopper best-suited to meet your needs. This is the gated-community version of reality, where the ultimate goal is for individuals to cut themselves off from the rest of society, rather than having us see ourselves as inter-connected citizens with a stake in what goes on around us.

The post-election talk of aspiration is a manifestation of this atomisation, because it’s about personal aspiration, not aspiration for the common good. Unfortunately the lie, initiated by one M Thatcher, that there is no such thing as society, appears to have slipped in round the back when no one was looking and etched itself into some universal law. In the words of Bill Hicks - I wasn’t at that meeting. This means that progressive and left -leaning parties and organisations need to start from scratch and make the case that there is such a thing, as this is surely the basis of an ‘overall, coherent, animated sense of who we are’ that Cruddas is talking about. It would also help if politicians – and broadcasters – didn’t underestimate we ordinary voters so much. The idea that we can’t understand/stomach/care about/respond to a bigger vision is rubbish. It’s what we’re crying out for.

Julia Brosnan is Co-Director of Dovetail: the change-making agency, and a member of The Equality Trust. 

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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.