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In this week's magazine | The power struggle

A first look at this week's issue.

The power struggle
7-14 May 2015

Owen Jones on the Conservatives’ very British coup.

Robert Webb: “Come on, Ed: tax me.”

How I’m voting: Leading figures including Michael Vaughan, Richard Dawkins and Hilary Mantel explain which way they’re voting and why.

Neil Kinnock talks to George Eaton about the Tory “lie”.

A is for Ashcroft: Helen Lewis’s A to Z of the 2015 election.

Jason Cowley on the anger of a red prince and the Tories’ image problem.

George Eaton: The true challenge for the next government will be to capture
the common sense of our age.

 

Owen Jones: If the Tories get more seats than Labour, get ready for a very British coup.

In his first column as an NS contributing writer, Owen Jones predicts that we are “sleepwalking into a dangerous moment”:

If there is a left-of-centre, anti-Tory majority in parliament then the Tories must fall, however many seats they have won. Left-wing parties will have won the election and a left-of-centre government led by Labour must take office. And yet it would be deemed “illegitimate” by the Tories and most of the media. That really would be a situation with few precedents in an advanced democracy: where the opposition and media refuse to accept the democratic legitimacy of the national government.

The “unionist” Tories have been fanning English nationalism over the past few weeks for two obvious reasons: to boost the SNP in Scotland, in order to increase the likelihood that the Tories will emerge the biggest single party; and to damage Labour in key English marginals. They may well succeed, ensuring a Tory triumph in the general election and leaving this whole scenario redundant. But it never was just a strategy aimed at winning on Thursday. It is a scorched-earth policy, all aimed at what happens after 7 May. The plotters will attempt to administer a fatal blow to the Union, whether they see it as such or not: they will tell the Scottish people that the MPs they have elected are political pariahs who have no rightful say over the governing of the country. And then they will wage the mother of all campaigns against the legitimacy of a Labour-led government.

Our very British coup will surely unfold this way. The Tories declare victory if they have the most seats, regardless of the parliamentary arithmetic. Key supportive newspapers endorse this line and pressure is put on the broadcasters to follow suit. The Tories begin publicly reassembling their coalition with the Lib Dems within hours of the polls closing, despite knowing they have no majority in parliament, in order to cement the image that they remain the legitimate government.

 

Robert Webb: Ed Miliband might not be the kind of leader you put on a T-shirt, but he still needs my vote.

Robert Webb writes that, during elections, his thoughts often turn to his mother (who died in 1990 when he was 17), because mother and son shared “a steady loathing of the Conservative Party”:

In 1990, my mother was at the mercy of an NHS after a decade of underinvestment (which had several more years to go). Schools and hospitals had buckets under the ceiling to catch the rain. You do remember, don’t you? The patients on trolleys in corridors and the lessons in Portakabins, the closing libraries, the riots, the homeless people sleeping rough? The hysterical rows in the Tory party about Europe, the press denigrating the Labour leader, the insistence that the poor protect the wealthy? You remember, right? What it used to be like when the Conservatives were in charge? We need only look out of the window: they’re back and they’ve been very busy. You can protest against them but under our knackered system, only Labour can kick them out.

I didn’t have the money to help my mum when I was 17 but I have a bit now. Come on, Ed: tax me. Tax me till I fart. Build those million new homes, freeze the rents of young people, reopen the libraries and the Sure Start centres, bring in the living wage, cut tuition fees, send another arena full of furious, heartbroken, working-class teenagers to university and stand well back. Reinvest in our health service, collar the corporate tax evaders, dismiss the non-doms, scrap the bedroom tax, let teachers teach, ignore Rupert Murdoch because you owe him nothing and restore some sense of purpose and decency to our public life.

I don’t need the Labour Party to have the kind of leader you’d want to put on a T-shirt and God knows they continue to oblige me. Ed Miliband’s favourite track is probably “Persuading in the Name Of” by Reform Against the Machine. It’s not my rage he needs, it’s my vote. He can’t do any of the above unless he’s prime minister. I know what to do about that. What will you do?

 

Leading figures tell the NS who has their vote and why

Prominent figures across the arts, journalism and business tell the New Statesman how they will vote in Thursday’s general election.

Michael Vaughan

I’ll be voting Conservative. David Cameron inherited a difficult situation from Labour and he’s done pretty well at turning that around. I don’t believe in change for change’s sake. I’m not a political expert, but it seems to me that Britain is going quite well. This is no time to risk the recovery.

Richard Dawkins

No voting system can ever be perfect, but any rational person can see that the first-past-the-post system is especially undemocratic. Unless you’re a member of a fortunate minority, your vote is going to be wasted. I would like to see a mass protest vote, not against any particular party, but against the first-past-the-post system itself. This means a mass campaign to vote tactically all over the country.

To anybody who disapproves of tactical voting, I reply that the first-past-the-post system forces it upon us. Nobody who voted for first-past-the-post in the 2011 referendum has any right to object to tactical voting.

In Oxford West and Abingdon, my tactical vote is for the Lib Dem candidate. It is a bonus that Layla Moran is a scientist, an educator and a worthy successor to the much-missed Evan Harris, a champion of science, rationality and secularism.

Hilary Mantel

I’ve missed most of the campaign because I’ve been abroad, but returned to an atmosphere of dead-eyed horse-trading. The electoral air is fetid, the major parties demeaning themselves; it would be funny if it weren’t so disgusting. I mean to vote for our independent candidate in East Devon, Claire Wright. She is an experienced local councillor who has covered the ground, knows what matters to people here, and talks in concrete terms rather than mouthing slogans.

East Devon is a safe Tory seat so in a sense it doesn’t matter what I do. But I hope that if enough people turn out for her, a decent, young, energetic candidate will be encouraged to keep striving. It’s a vote for the political process rather than a political party. Which is an act of faith, and seems the best one can do.

Philip Pullman

I want to see a Labour government. But because of the dysfunctional nature of our voting system, which can only be described as a few islands of meaning in a welter of frivolous pointlessness, I can’t vote Labour in this constituency (Oxford West and Abingdon, won last time by the Conservatives with a majority of 176) without knowing my vote would be wasted.

Nothing will incline me to vote Lib Dem again, so I shall vote for the National Health Action Party, because the NHS has been very good to me in recent years. That won’t win, either, but it feels less trivial to vote for it. But what I want above all is a voting system that allows the votes of the people to be reflected accurately in the make-up of parliament. If that means deals and coalitions, fine; but please let’s get away from the current arrangement, which is no better than a lottery.

Ralph Steadman

I will put my X in the box of whoever is standing in our part of Kent – someone called Jasper Gerard, I believe? He may even be a Lib Dem. But he knows my friend Councillor Brian Clark, who works very hard on local issues such as threatened woodland areas.

“Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under,” said H L Mencken – and he covered the infamous Scopes (monkey) trial. From coal miners to coalitions in a mere 30 years, with white-collar workers mouthing the word “democracy” – Greek: demos (people); kratos (rule) – that we all know and love. And it is high time we sent the Parthenon Marbles back where they belong!

We are now also “award-winning” obsessed. We even hauled in Tony Blair dot org – the BLAIR SCARE – to tell us that a referendum would cause CHAOS (an ancient Greek religion also!). Let’s hone the Pledge-Hedge and trade in the Future for short-term political hocus-pocus. UGH!!! Ukip if you want to: I’m staying awake!!!

Ed Miliband can’t say PLUM JAM!!! It’s not his fault – and I wouldn’t dream of mocking him for it but . . . GIVE HIM A CHANCE!!!!!!

 

The former Labour leader Lord Kinnock on the Tory “lie”

In this week’s New Statesman, the former leader of the Labour Party Neil Kinnock warns that the “shy Tory” voters who cost Labour victory in the 1992 election could do so again. He tells George Eaton:

“There’s a superstition that somehow a Tory government will look after your pocket; it’s a triumph of propaganda over reality. And people who tell pollsters that they’re not sure, or they’re not going to vote Conservative, will, in the privacy of the ballot booth, say: ‘To hell with it, I’ll stick with what I know because they say they’re going to cut my taxes’ – even when their record is, of course, to have put taxes up.”

In 1992 the final pre-election polls showed Labour and the Conservatives level pegging, but John Major’s party finished 7 points ahead and won a majority of 21 seats. It was the “shy Tories” phenomenon – those who refused to disclose their true voting intention to pollsters – that led to the surveys’ error.

Elsewhere in the interview, Kinnock laments Labour’s failure to counteract the “lie” told by the Tories about the state of the UK economy in 2010. “They’ve got away with telling a lie,” he says, one that they were permitted to implant because we were “preoccupied with a leadership election”. He adds: “We should have redoubled our efforts after that to demolish the lie.”

 

Helen Lewis: An A to Z of the campaign

From screaming hen parties to a trout called Nibbles, Helen Lewis rounds up the most wonderful and weird moments of the past six weeks.

A is for Ashcroft
The Tory peer Michael Ashcroft has morphed into a Yoda-like sage, thanks to his polling of marginal constituencies. The snapshots – which cost an estimated £10,000 each – provide an unprecedented level of detail at the local level, and there are suggestions that they could even influence the outcome of the election by swaying tactical voters. But not everyone is a fan: Tory Central Office must be kicking itself that such valuable data is being put in the public domain.

P is for policy cenotaph
And the Lord said unto Ed Mosesband: “Hew thee a table of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon this table better words than were on Tony Blair’s extremely effective, popular and – crucially – portable pledge card from 1997, which thou rejectest. Yea, I will even include that one about ‘an NHS with time to care’, which no one really understandeth.”

Y is for yolo
To the surprise of . . . well, everyone, Ed Miliband has come out of this campaign looking cooler than he went in. He has played pool with Ronnie O’Sullivan, come up with a plausible song choice on Absolute Radio (Bastille’s “Pompeii”) and revealed his love of the 1980s video game Manic Miner. The key? Embracing his inner geek rather than bluffing, badly (see West Ham). True to form, when Time Out asked Miliband what yolo – “you only live once” – meant, he confessed he didn’t know. (Once he found out, though, he seemed to like it, excitedly telling the interviewer: “That is a good philosophy for politics!”)

 

Jason Cowley on the last moments of the election campaign

The NS editor, Jason Cowley, gathers his thoughts before Thursday’s election in an editor’s note. He considers what kind of media British politicians really want during the campaign:

Labour MPs are eager to complain about the rabidly partisan election coverage of the right-wing press while being all too willing to sulk and curse if they do not receive the requisite support from those they consider to be on their own side. But what is preferable surely to simple-minded cheerleading – as if a political party were a football team – is scepticism and a willingness to satirise those who seek to be our elected representatives.

Cowley also reflects on the similarities and contrasts between the two serious candidates for PM:

In their different ways, Cameron and Ed Miliband are both ultimate party insiders: representatives of different tribes, yes – one a member of the Etonian governing class, the other a Hampstead socialist – but both the product of privileged networks, family contacts and covert associations. Because of this neither can break free from the pack, taking the people with them on the way to winning a resounding mandate. As a consequence, at the end of this uninspiring campaign, we face one hell of a muddle.

 

George Eaton: The true challenge for the next government will be to capture the common sense of our age

In this week’s Politics Column, George Eaton considers how, although elections determine who holds office, they only partly decide who wields power, as the “struggle for intellectual and political supremacy is waged over decades, not years”.

The challenge for today’s leaders is to move the “Overton window” – the term used by political theorists to describe the range of policies that are acceptable to the public. Even before a vote has been cast, the winners and the losers in this task have been determined by the contents of the parties’ manifestos; the ideas [to be] included and those discarded.

Reflecting on Ed Miliband’s larger goal to “move the centre ground”, Eaton looks beyond the immediate aftermath of polling day to the next era of British politics:

Just as no leader will be able to claim arithmetical victory after the election, no leader will be able to claim intellectual victory. The state is advancing in some areas as it retreats in others. Should this new era of hung politics endure, the UK may never again be led by figures in the mould of Attlee and Thatcher, those who enact a pure union of policy and philosophy. The true test for the next government will be not whether it retains office, but whether it forces its opponents to change.

 

Plus

Frances Wilson on the rise of vampiric fiction.

Will Self: Marathons are about solidarity, pain and reclaiming the body – and they are truly pointless to boot.

Tracey Thorn on Nick Cave.

Suzanne Moore: Obviously I’d rather boil my own head than vote Tory. Maybe I’ll just stand as an indie again...

Frank Cottrell Boyce on the many faces of God.

Musa Okwonga shows the red card to soccer racists.

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.