May vs Corbyn on Britain's failing counter-terrorism policy

May vs Corbyn on Britain's failing counter-terrorism policy
Comment: The 'Prevent' strategy divides the United Kingdom, with Conservatives wanting to bolster a policy which critics say is both Islamophobic and counter-productive, writes Hilary Aked.
6 min read
30 May, 2017
Troops have deployed to bolster operations following police service cuts made by Theresa May [Getty]
The horrific suicide bomb attack in Manchester, which claimed the lives of more than 20 people including several children, has ensured that counter-terrorism strategies will remain high on the agenda throughout the remainder of Britain's general election campaign.

The Manchester attack was the deadliest since the 7/7 London bombings in 2005 and it came just a couple of months after another fatal attack in Westminster.

Though it is difficult to be sure of the number and severity of planned violent attacks which have been foiled by the security services, many in the UK feel that the current approach isn't working, and have called either for a change of direction, or a further intensifying of current strategies.

Undoubtedly the most controversial aspect of existing counter-terrorism measures has been Prevent, the so-called "counter-extremism" programme with the stated aim of stopping people being "radicalised" in the first place. So how do the parties compare?

Theresa May's record on Prevent

Prime Minister Theresa May spent six years as Home Secretary, Britain's version of an interior minister. During that time, together with Prime Minister David Cameron, she oversaw the Conservatives' revision of the Prevent strategy. Published in 2011, this emphasised a need to target even entirely non-violent actors if they espoused an ideology deemed to be "extremist".

Extremism was defined as "vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values". Such a broad and vague categorisation, combined with questionable theories of "radicalisation" and questions over what uniquely "British" values were being used to benchmark such behaviour, has led to numerous unnecessary referrals to law enforcement based on little more than Islamophobic prejudice.

In the face of growing resistance from civil society, the government made Prevent mandatory by passing the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015. Its so-called "Prevent clause" made public sector workers - including teachers and lecturers - legally obliged to have "due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism".

Comment: After Manchester, it's time to rethink Prevent

In practice, research shows that this has led to serious discrimination against Muslims in areas including health and education. Some shocking cases hit the headlines, including a boy who was suspected of extremism for mentioning the phrase "eco-terrorism" during a debate in his school French class, and a young student who was reported for reading a book about terrorism in a university library.

Despite these "type 2 errors", and continued political violence suggesting the strategy was ineffective as well as destructive, the Tories have shown few signs of changing course. Just six months ago, following a secret review commissioned by May, the government concluded that the policy should be strengthened, rather than scaled back.

Some private companies making a killing by exploiting the climate of fear to sell Prevent training materials have close connections to the Conservative establishment

While the odd figure associated with the right-wing press - such as former Daily Telegraph journalist Peter Oborne (a conservative with a small 'c') - has spoken out, the loudest Conservative voice critical of Prevent from within the party has been former cabinet minister Baroness Warsi. Her recent book The Enemy Within slammed the policy for stigmatising Muslims and stifling freedom of speech.

Some private companies making a killing by exploiting the climate of fear to sell Prevent training materials have close connections to the Conservative establishment.

Labour's evolution

But it was the Labour party - under Tony Blair - who first introduced Prevent, back in 2006 in the wake of the 7/7 attacks. While this earlier version ostensibly focused on preventing "violent extremism", the extent to which it targeted Islam - making Muslims into an officially "suspect community" - became increasingly clear.

This fundamentally Islamophobic - as well as ineffective - aspect of the policy hasn't changed much over the years in any iteration of Prevent, as evidenced by recent covert propaganda campaigns. That said, several elements within the Labour Party have more recently voiced opposition to the strategy which their party set in motion.

Comment: Tackling radicalisation in the pre-criminal space

Leftist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has attacked the current government's commitment to Prevent, arguing that it targets Muslims, "casts suspicion over the whole community" and is "actually often counter-productive".

His call for racism, discrimination and far-right extremism to be addressed as stringently has been echoed by close party allies including Diane Abbott.

Abbott - who, as shadow Home Secretary, would likely step into Theresa May's old job, should Labour win the election - said in November 2016 that Prevent had "failed to change the attitudes of those on the far right". Speaking at a meeting organised by the National Union of Students and the National Union of Teachers as part of the anti-Prevent campaign "Students Not Suspects" - she called for a "fundamental rethink" of the policy.

Such criticisms culminated in a Labour manifesto pledge to review Prevent "with a view to assessing both its effectiveness and its potential to alienate minority communities".

Too often in times of shock, grief and fear, politicians fall back on knee-jerk and sometimes draconian policies, in response to what they perceive as public demand for 'action'

Perhaps the most influential Labour figure in the coming days, however, will be Andy Burnham. Though he ran against Corbyn as a candidate for party leader, his views on Prevent have been articulated even more strongly.

This time last year he railed against Prevent, calling it "toxic", "discriminatory" and even dubbing it "today's equivalent of internment in Northern Ireland".

Since then, he has become mayor of Manchester, and it will be worth watching to see if he stands by this stance.

Too often in times of shock, grief and fear, politicians fall back on knee-jerk and sometimes draconian policies, in response to what they perceive as public demand for "action". The current situation in France - a country in which the balance of liberty and security has been skewed ever since a "state of emergency" was declared almost two years ago - shows where that path leads.

In-depth - Battling extremism: A mother's lament for a radicalised son

Other parties on Prevent

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats aim to scrap Prevent entirely, saying defining extremism as opposition to "British" values is wrong.

The Scottish National Party has been criticised for its implementation of Prevent training in Scotland but it claims it want to re-focus on "partnership with communities" in fighting extremism, contrasting this to Westminster’s approach.

Plaid Cymru, the Party of Wales, says the Prevent scheme has not deterred extremism. "The top-down nature of 'Prevent' has often had a counter-productive effect and has not brought people together. Plaid Cymru would foster grassroots initiatives to create a sense of solidarity between different communities," a spokesperson told The New Arab.

UKIP continues to espouse Islamophobia dressed up as counter-extremism, seemingly as a new unique selling point amid its identity crisis following the Brexit referendum.

The Green Party's position, by contrast, is to "not allow the disproportionate targeting of the Muslim community as evidenced by Prevent in its current form".

This disproportionality is stark: approximately 70 percent of people flagged up under Prevent are believed to be Muslim. These figures are not down to any inherent tendency on the part of Muslim communities. Evidence indicates, instead, that they are proof of subjective and prejudicial understandings of what constitutes "extremism".

Quite apart from this grossly unjust treatment, critics say the Prevent policy is failing to stop violence and wasting millions in the process - Salman Abedi, the Manchester bomber, was reported to authorities on several occasions.

Yet the suspicion and mistrust this project has spread looks set to deepen if the Conservatives triumph in the June 8 election, as polls continue to predict.

Hilary Aked is an analyst and researcher whose PhD studies focus on the influence of the Israel lobby in the United Kingdom.

Follow her on Twitter: @Hilary_Aked

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.