Tesco, hurricanes and Chernobyl

I’ve left Chelsea tractor country this week for Hove and the Green Party’s autumn conference.

This is a huge one for me: as Campaigns Co-ordinator I’m running a stand promoting this year’s big green energy and local shops campaigns; I have a big policy motion on the agenda to bring together our policies to help small businesses; and on Saturday I have two fringe meetings to chair and a rehearsal on the beach for activists who are coming to Scotland next month as part of a 100-day blockade of the Faslane nuclear weapons base. (The weather forecast is for a hurricane so I’m a little worried we will all be swept out to sea.)

And on top of all that I am standing as a candidate for female Principal Speaker on next year’s executive so I’ll be making my hustings speech on Saturday to try to convince the Party that I would be a worthy successor to the great Caroline Lucas MEP as one of our main public faces.

It took ages just to write all that down, never mind fitting it all in over the next few days, and of course I’m also aiming to blog all this here, so we’ll see how that fits in – please excuse me if my grammar goes all John Prescott in the rush.

It is fitting to have our conference in Brighton and Hove this year – along with Norwich this is the Greenest city in the country. For the last two general elections, Brighton Pavillion has been our best parliamentary constituency and we have twice as many councillors here as the Liberal Democrats. So, imagine my dismay on emerging from Brighton station this morning to find the place thick with the ‘yellow menace’.

I try not to get too frustrated with the LibDems, I really do, but their lack of principle does get to me. Most of them, particularly on local councils, seem to have joined simply to get elected. In contrast most Greens are first and foremost interested in ‘the cause’ and can’t wait to tell you the gory details of their conversion.

This will sounds like a joke, but one of the major sponsors of their conference is actually Tesco. Yes, you read that correctly. Tesco is of course sugaring the pill - using the conference to promote their new ‘Community Plan’ and boast about their aim to be a ‘good neighbour’. But if the LibDems are prepared to let Tesco propagandise to their members in exchange for a few quid, then you have to wonder where else they will be prepared to compromise.

I could go on about this for a dozen pages, but I think the real problem with the LibDems was put best by the Green Party protestors who this morning picketed their conference to expose their record on local councils, supporting road-building and airport expansion virtually across the board. Given they were holding a ‘Climate Crazy Ming’ banner, I’ll have to admit we’re not above a bit of name-calling when it’s deserved!

Almost the whole of the conference today is taken up with education issues. We’ll be updating our education policy over the next six months, so have invited a very wide range of interesting groups and individuals to Hove to tell us what they think we should be doing.

This agenda was set up months ago, but it’s a stroke of luck that there has been so much noise on the subject of ‘the purpose of education’ and ‘the state of childhood’ lately. There are definite signs that many influential figures are moving towards the Greens’ point of view in this area.

As well as the recent open letter to the Daily Telegraph, signed by everyone from psychology professors to poets, the Children’s Society and the Archbishop of Canterbury have also chipped in during the last week to launch a two-year inquiry that will look at the effects of recent changes in education on children’s wellbeing.

The sessions today made it obvious that most Greens are once again way ahead of the agenda on an important issue. We have always insisted education practice should be about developing human beings not economic units, and negotiated between the young and their teachers - not a quantified ‘service contract’ to help employers and parents mould young people in their image.

At a packed fringe run by the Young Greens today, our student rep at the London School of Economics described it as ‘a production line for the City of London’ and criticised current education practice - starting in schools – for turning kids into corporate clones at younger and younger ages. The other main speaker was keen to see the student voice given real power in schools, sitting on governing bodies as well as helping to design government policies and the curriculum. She was right – how can we expect young people to begin turning up to vote at 18 when they have had no power over their lives at all before then?

But while our philosophy on education is bang on target, it is true that many of the specifics of our education policy do need updating. This is not our fault but simply thanks to the vast number of new initiatives and ‘reforms’ brought in lately by New Labour (many of which we wouldn’t even have suspected of Thatcher at her height).

In fact, in contrast to most criticisms we hear about Green policies, the policies we have on education are packed full of things we are in favour of, but doesn’t cover half of what we’re against (these include student loans, tuition fees, SATs, trust schools, and selection - in case you were wondering).

This evening I’m off to see a film about Chernobyl. I’ll post more tomorrow when we’ll be talking mainly about social enterprise (and no that does not include Tesco’s ‘Community Plan’).

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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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.