Andy's handy. Photo: Getty Images
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Here's why I'm backing Andy Burnham to lead Labour back to power

It’s hard to find a more genuine, decent person in politics than Andy, and I think people will connect with him at a time when we’re battling scepticism and apathy as much as we’re fighting the other side. 

On May 7, the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire voted decisively for a Labour government. And it is the people in my constituency and my city who will suffer from the Tory agenda which followed our defeat. In the face of such a defeat, it’s only natural that we spend a short time looking at why we lost so badly. It’s clear we have a lot to learn.

I knocked on a lot of doors, both in my own constituency and in marginal seats across the country and two things struck me wherever I went: people didn’t trust Labour on the economy and in general they weren’t big fans of Westminster politicians at all.   

We need to reconnect with the people we lost - to Ukip, to the SNP and those that lost faith in the entire system, and we must win votes back from those who put their trust in the Tories.

But, amongst all of this, we cannot and must not abandon our core purpose – to speak up for the voiceless and address the fundamental inequalities that means a girl born today in my constituency can expect to live up to ten years less than another girl born in a wealthier part of my city.

It’s a big job, make no mistake. But I decided quite early on that I’d be backing Andy because he is up to that task.

In my initial conversations with him, his absolute determination to take on the big issues that in the past we have tended to leave untouched was clear: on immigration and Europe and on how Labour is perceived as being part of a metropolitan elite. But it is his track record of standing up for our values and the principles we hold dear which clearly marks him out.

When it would have been easier not to, he spoke out against private sector involvement doing so much damage to our NHS; he staunchly defended our comprehensive system from Tory attacks; and while in Government he helped kick-start a process which may finally, after 26 years, bring some closure to the families of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster who have suffered repeated injustices over more than two decades.

More often than not, these calls went against the prevailing political winds inside the ‘Westminster village’ and that matters because we desperately need a leader who can reach out and speak to the entire country not just talk amongst themselves in London.  Andy has repeatedly shown that he can do just that.

Within that I know that Andy understands there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to why we’re not in government today.  Anybody that claims otherwise is merely attempting to force their own ideological agenda onto the defeat because while some in the South may have wanted to hear more about small business or wealth creators, there were plenty in the North and West Midlands who wanted to talk about immigration and wages; and tens of thousands of voters in Scotland who wanted change so badly, they rejected all of the main Westminster parties.

For me our main issue in this election was one of incoherence.  We didn’t spend too much in Government, but we supported the Tories’ spending cuts.  We wanted some kind of reform of Europe but didn’t advocate a referendum.  We abhorred the Tories’ welfare cuts but we voted for the welfare cap. We had some great policies in our manifesto but people just didn’t know what we stood for in a more fundamental way – we needed an overarching vision for our country. I was a vocal and firm supporter of Ed and was enthused by the way he started his leadership, but as the campaign progressed our offer seemed to be whittled away by overly cautious pledges on rail fare increase caps and childcare that even the Tories could match.

Yet people from across the political spectrum have recognised that so much of what Ed was saying was right.  We did not lose because we championed people on low pay and zero hours contracts and because we stood up to this Government’s vindictive assault on the poor.  What attracts me most to Andy is that he will not sweep all this away but will build on it, broadening it out so that it appeals to all sections of society.

And finally, If the last few years have taught us anything, the power of ‘being a normal bloke’ (or woman come to that) shouldn’t be underestimated. Farage is anything but ‘one of the people’ but he plays his role well and Ukip benefit from that. I so desperately wanted Ed Miliband to succeed but his perceived character flaws did get raised on the doorstep, constantly perpetuated by the right wing press looking to accentuate anything they thought didn’t ‘fit’.

It’s hard to find a more genuine, decent person in politics than Andy, and I think people will connect with him at a time when we’re battling scepticism and apathy as much as we’re fighting the other side. 

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.