Acting Labour leader Harriet Harman, who has called for the party to abstain on the government's welfare bill. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour MPs turn on Harman over welfare cuts at PLP meeting

20 MPs speak out against acting leader's call to abstain on the government's bill, with just five in favour. 

There was no disguising the divisions within Labour over welfare cuts at tonight's PLP meeting. An aide to Harriet Harman conceded that the party was badly "split" after the acting leader called on MPs to abstain on the government's welfare reform and work bill next week. I'm told that 25 MPs spoke, with just five of those supporting her position. One rebel, Andy MacDonald, declared that the two-child limit on tax credits was a regression to the days of "Mao Tse-Tung and King Herod". Labour whips expect 60-80 MPs to vote against the welfare bill in defiance of Harman's stance. As he left the meeting and was asked what he thought, Neil Kinnock replied: "Not much". 

Harman warned the gathering in Committee Room 14 that "If we oppose everything, people will not hear those things we are opposing and why". Harman recalled that Labour voted against 13 welfare bills in the last parliament but that only its rejection of the bedroom tax was noticed. While abstaining over the welfare bill, Harman said that the party would campaign against the lowering of the Employment and Support Allowance, the scrapping of maintenance grants for poor students, the abolition of child poverty targets and tax credit cuts such as the reduction in the income threshold. But to the consternation of many MPs, Labour will not oppose the two-child tax credit cap. One told me afterwards that Harman "bombed on welfare" and that there was "no consensus on the child tax credit changes". He added: "She rather limped away, saying it needed 'further consideration'". Labour has yet to decide whether it will impose a three-line whip on MPs over the proposed abstention. 

Harman's refusal to table reasoned amendments to the welfare bill, outlining the party's differences with the government, angered Frank Field, the work and pensions select committee  chai rand the former welfare reform minister, who shouted at her that Labour had to defend the "three million strivers" who faced losing £1,000 from tax credit cuts (prompting Keith Vaz to quip that he never thought he'd see the day when Harman would be "attacked from the left" by Field). One senior MP predicted that Harman would be forced to back down at tomorrow morning's shadow cabinet meeting. 

After briefings suggesting that she has overreached, and is revelling in her status as acting leader, Harman emphasised that she "never wanted to be here" and that the job she wanted was deputy prime minister. From September, she would be on the backbenches and while she wanted to make "the right decisions" now, she would not "bind the hands" of the next leader. Harman's many critics will be looking to her putative replacements for a clear commitment to pursue a different course. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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.