Restoring Labour's reputation

A few weeks ago headlines were dominated by the news that yet another young Briton had been killed fighting for ISIS in Syria. Just a few days later, we were warned hundreds of ISIS fighters were being sent all over Europe to rain terror in our cities, on our freedom. Yet, the Labour Party has been utterly silent on the challenges Britain faces when it comes to terrorism.

So far under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, Labour’s commitment to the nation's security has been put in doubt by a history of worrying associations. More so, the leadership's decision not to tackle violent extremism and terrorism head on is harming its ability to be heard and be trusted for good.

The threats we face are real and it’s time Labour joined the frontline – challenging both the government, which has presided over a disastrous and failing strategy when it comes to counter-radicalisation, and those who should know better but have played a game of political rhetoric which has let both our enemy and the Tories off the hook.

To counter growing extremism and intolerance both at home and abroad Labour must find a voice that enables it to be trusted to take on the fight against terrorism. To do so the party must root its rhetoric back in reality, expose the failings of the government’s strategy and have a plan of its own to tackle the very real challenges of terrorism and radicalisation.

There is absolutely no excuse for allowing the rhetoric that Syria represented a good ‘choice for our young people' to go unchecked.
Photo: Reuters

Challenging a dangerous rhetoric that aided our enemies

Firstly, on the rhetoric, Labour must distance itself from those who have become apologists for ISIS. It should start by making one thing absolutely clear – our common enemy is ISIS; a barbaric and highly effective force that is engaged in a war against us, and everything we stand for, and is using Britain’s young people as its foot soldiers.

The family of one of the 15 year-old schoolgirls who left from the Bethnal Green Academy, an outstanding school, to be killed in Syria, said that her death was “the end that they were expecting”. A story where she had somehow managed to get her hands on thousands of pounds and arrive in the middle of a warzone, on the side of ISIS.

She herself became and died an enemy because ISIS are managing to make their warzone seem like an attractive ‘choice’ – a reason to leave Britain. But let’s finally be honest – this was absolutely no choice at all. This is instead dangerous rhetoric that gave credence to the claims of ISIS as they were grooming, manipulating, and radicalising young Britons.

For many the blame is on Britain. They claim we assured this fate for our own citizens, by our own actions. They try and compare and contrast the actions and morals of Britain and ISIS. In doing so, they have simply chosen to turn a blind eye to all that ISIS stands for and the true depths of their barbarity and their tactics.

The rhetoric that blames Britain for the rise of ISIS, and therefore for the many people going to Syria, simply lets ISIS off the hook. It is an absolutely shameful tactic to somehow make out that Syria is an attractive prospect for young people compared to a Britain that “has no place for them”.

It is astounding that so many have fallen into this narrative – claiming the role ISIS has planned for our young people is somehow comparable to the lack of opportunities that they have here, or somehow more patriotic. At such a pivotal time such a narrative ensured that in many cases ISIS’ claims about Britain, the West and themselves were simply legitimised. It emboldened an enemy that were using grim tactics to paint their barbarism as a noble cause – and regardless of whether you agree with it or not, using a warped interpretation of religion to appeal to people and motivate them to act.

Those who used this narrative created their own muddled interpretation of facts and used “retaliation” to make out that there is some form of justice in joining ISIS. Or attacking troops at bases. Or killing police on the streets in Europe, because of the actions of democratic governments. They say it’s not just for Syria – but for 'past actions and transgressions' by Britain and her allies.

But we must remind ourselves of the fragility of their arguments. They claim Britain’s invasion of Iraq was the seed that sowed such hatred against our islands and yet, France and Germany never stepped foot in Basra and yet both have been targeted by a series of home grown terrorists that were radicalised at home and abroad. To put it simply, ISIS and its equivalents were planning on turning our young people into weapons long before our Tornados and Eurofighters took off bound for Baghdad or Raqqa.

That narrative and our pathetic response has led to an absolutely desperate reality where young people, growing up in some of the most free and tolerant societies in the world, are closing in and believing that the murder of innocent people - whether at home or abroad - is a just cause.

Many people in the world face persecution – and many people in Britain do feel hard done by, marginalised, cheated or broken by the system. But the vast majority do not, and never would, turn to violence to solve their problems. To even suggest that this is an understandable decision or 'choice' for young people in Britain today is an utterly shameful position to hold when the fate for them is so blindingly obvious.

Instead of doing everything and anything they could to stop this crisis from growing, too many, mainly on the left, ignored the reality at hand, left their perspective at the door and instead hijacked a debate to pursue an ideological narrative about Britain. To use this crisis for their own political gain is utterly shameful.

Those who claim to have the interests of these young people at heart must stop referring to radicalisation in inverted commas as if it doesn’t really exist or pretending they don’t understand the difference between strong political opinions and aiding violent terrorism. Add to that the mixed messages about what would happen to people if they did leave for Syria and what would be the situation if they tried to return. We simply failed to stem the tide immediately and utterly failed to focus on the facts at hand.

Thankfully the tide has started to turn as the grim realities of life in Syria and Iraq have taken centre stage over the past two or more years.

Britain finally entered the conflict rather than sitting on the sidelines and has successfully taken part in an international coalition that has pushed ISIS back and forced Turkey to start live up to its responsibilities in securing more of the border. The horrific scenes of journalists and aid workers being beheaded and gay people being thrown from towers has acted as a reminder of the barbarity of our enemies and successfully put the claims of British antagonism in the Middle East into perspective.

Had this been the narrative from day one – we might have seen the lure of ISIS burn out much earlier.

Exposing the failings of the government to win the fight on terrorism

But the government must also face the fact that its own strategy failed.

That strategy, known as CONTEST, has been at the heart of Britain’s response in attempting to fight the use of radicalisation – namely through a de-radicalisation programme known as Channel, and the growing ‘Prevent’ strand which has now been in place for some ten years. The full aims of Prevent, or the ‘agenda’ as some call it, is to literally “aim to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.”

Whilst we can, and probably should, debate whether the figures of those joining our enemies would be smaller or greater had it not been in place, the obvious point is that Prevent and the rest of the strategy has allowed some 200 or more British citizens to die in Syria. That is far larger than any terrorist incident in Britain or involving British citizens abroad. Some 600 have left Britain and many later returned as a security risk. Our terror-threat level remains at its peak. Furthermore, when the majority of current attacks around Europe are being committed by known risks – the fact the government has not got a handle on this crisis is shocking.

On that basis alone, the government has questions to answer on the effectiveness of its response.

But even its wider failings are just as stark.

Our communities are becoming more polarised, we are seeing rampant antisemitism and islamophobic attacks in our society and even mainstream political parties are now being accused of one or both of antisemitism or Islamophobia. In short – the strategy is not doing its job in keeping anybody safe from the extremes of the incitement of violence.

That is a shameful record of a government that says its laws would keep us safe.

But, yet again, Labour’s rhetoric has ensured the government has been able to dig its head into the sand and push on regardless. It should be highly worrying, to all of us who want counter-terrorism to succeed, that the government is being given the opportunity to paint all opponents to the failings of Prevent as opposing counter-terrorism.

It is also not a smear by the government to claim this when the failures of the government’s strategy that its opponents highlight are a long way from the story of the 1000 people who have been radicalised and travelled to Syria.

In fact, their opposition is resolutely focused on just a few case studies where students in higher education in some of the most expensive and privileged universities have been dragged in through the wide net cast by Prevent in trying to assess and identify those at risk from radicalisation.

Opponents of Prevent have made friends in the form of organisations like CAGE and Hizb-ut-Tahir who target the police for heavy-handed tactics in arresting and pursuing actual suspected terrorists such as “breaking down a door” and saying that “young men had been criminalised and their lives tarnished through the broad stroke of ‘terrorism’.” In this case, they were in fact referring to Tarik Hassane and Suhaib Majeed, two young people who had the opportunity of a university education and are now in prison facing some twenty years for plotting to murder soldiers, police officers and innocent civilians in French-style drive by-shootings.

We should stand side-by-side with the government when it is undertaking genuine counter-terrorism operations against known suspects. To stand with organisations who conflate this type of urgent and necessary action with other programmes such as Prevent are serving no purpose in the cause to get the government to consider its failings with the latter.

It is obvious that Labour must not allow itself to be sidelined by debating on the fringes with this ramshackle clan who oppose everything the government has to say, but with no policies of their own.

Putting forward a credible plan to keep people safe from harm

It is therefore vital that Labour puts forward a credible plan that shows it is serious about security.

A few weeks ago Owen Smith, standing for the Labour Leadership, said that if we are to strengthen the resourcing of counter-radicalisation we have to foster better community relations in Britain and stand up for Britain’s rights by investing in our communities.

He was booed and attacked as a ‘supporter’ of Prevent.

To attack Owen as if he is the enemy for daring to use the word ‘Prevent’ is absolutely damning of those who claim to have the interests of those at risk of radicalisation at heart. In the closing days of this leadership contest, Owen should begin by announcing a five point plan that makes it clear Labour is serious about fighting terrorism and challenging the government on its approach – to make it work.

That challenge to the government should therefore be twofold: firstly to ensure that people cannot become targets for radicalisation by building strong communities with the support they need to counter it; and secondly to hunt down known threats, identify violent extremists who are trying to leave Britain to fight for our enemies and prevent terrorist attacks from happening.

Labour's strategy should;

Challenge Theresa May to begin negotiations with the EU on security – As the reality of Brexit comes clear, Labour should respond to the headlines of home-radicalised and foreign fighters in Britain by making it clear the government must not allow any exit from the EU to impact on Britain’s security. We should challenge the Prime Minister to open negotiations on security as her top issue and guarantee Britain’s place in the European Arrest Warrant and joint-operations with Interpol as a top priority for the government.

Call on the government to immediately account for all fighters who have returned from Syria – Known threats and suspects remain a highly significant proportion of the recent terrorist atrocities we have seen in Europe and around the world either where de-radicalisation or disengagement has failed, such as in Canada, or where the security services have failed to track its citizens that have fought or been trained abroad – such as in France and Germany. Labour should call for action to immediately find and pursue those who have returned from Syria and other ISIS areas and enlist them into Channel, the de-radicalisation programme. The government should be held to account on the percentage of these returners that have been enlisted into the programme.

Deliver more resources to counter-terrorism operations – We should ensure counter-terrorism experts focus on counter-terrorism – by bringing more operatives online to counter the direct threats and activities by our enemies and resource more live counter-radicalisation operations by law-enforcement and the security services under the rest of CONTEST – mainly through Pursue and the multi-fronted Channel project. Existing funding awarded from the Home Office through Prevent should either be discontinued or repurposed for clear counter-terrorism operations within the Home and Foreign offices, such as to cyber-security firms to support the aiding of Pursue.

Go further than the Home Affairs Select Committee recommendations and instead disband and replace Prevent – Combining anti-extremism and counter-terrorism operations under CONTEST has failed to give assurances to communities that they are not under suspicion. Labour should call for Prevent to be disbanded from CONTEST and the funding transferred and then used to develop an extensive citizenship and multi-faith programme as the sole responsibility of the Department for Communities and Local Government under Sajid Javid. All externally funded projects by the government to foster community relations, inter-faith work or any other aspects of the citizenship programme should be offered directly and solely to vetted partners from DCLG to provide a firewall between counter-terrorism operations and programmes designed to enhance community relations and citizenship within the UK to end the suspicion and conflation of the two. Labour should stress that whilst the benefits of a cohesive and strong community are obvious to counter terrorism itself, they should be different in focus, scope and principle and that they go wider and further than this aim.

Pledge to restore citizenship education in all schools, no matter what their structure – Finally through the Citizenship and Multi-Faith programme under the leadership and funding of DCLG, Labour should force the government to restore a compulsory citizenship curriculum into all levels of education – including free schools and consider placing pastoral responsibilities onto universities, as opposed to the reporting mechanism to law enforcement that was put in place under Prevent, that is designed to allow debate to flourish in a safe environment. A review of existing pastoral and safeguarding guidelines should then take place and on the introduction of the citizenship curriculum the Prevent Duty should be suspended and replaced by these reviewed guidelines.

With race and faith relations hitting an all-time low, our threat level at an all time high and the challenges we see with security and defence starker and more difficult than we have seen since the start of the 21st century – Labour must take its position seriously and move on from standing on the side-lines of political debate with people who have taken their eyes well off the ball of the mission at hand.

Any security agenda should be crystal clear – defeating ISIS, keeping Britain safe from a barbaric common enemy and strengthening our communities to foster freedom and debate.

If the government will not act to ensure that happens, Labour must show that it can and will.