Under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, Labour’s commitment to keeping our country safe 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 on serious issues facing our country. It's time Labour joined the frontline in challenging the government, which is presiding over a strategy full of question marks. But to do that, the party will have to tackle those within its own ranks who should know better but have instead played a game of political rhetoric which has let both our enemy and the Tories off the hook. Labour must start to root its rhetoric back in reality, expose the failings of the government’s strategy and have a plan of its own if it is to be trusted to tackle the very real challenges of terrorism and radicalisation in our country.
We must challenge a dangerous rhetoric that has aided our enemies
On the rhetoric, Labour must start by distancing itself from those in its ranks 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 some of Britain’s young people as its foot soldiers.
Just a few weeks ago, 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”. This is a story where their daughter somehow managed to get her hands on thousands of pounds and arrive in the middle of a warzone, on the side of ISIS and died because of it.
For many the blame is on Britain. They try to 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.
To put it simply - 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. Some even go further, claiming Syria is an attractive prospect for young people compared to a Britain that “has no place for them”.
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, is just absolute nonsense. And it's dangerous. At such a pivotal time such a narrative has ensured that in many cases the claims of our enemy about Britain, the West and themselves were simply legitimised. It has emboldened an enemy that is using grim tactics to paint their barbarism as a noble cause – and regardless of whether you agree, 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 like there is some form of justice in joining ISIS. Or attacking troops at bases. Or killing police on the streets - 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 to it, 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.
Labour must be clear - many people in the world face persecution, and yes, many people in Britain do feel hard done by and are 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 or to legitimise claims 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.
They will die.
But instead of doing everything and anything they could to stop this crisis from growing, and recognising that our young people are being radicalised, not freely opting to go to Syria - too many, mainly on the left, have 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 political gain is utterly shameful - and 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.
The line between the two is a lot clearer than those following this rhetoric would have you think.
Add to this the mixed messages from the government 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.
Exposing the failings of the government to win the fight on terrorism
Secondly - Labour must press the government on the fact that its own strategy failed.
CONTEST, at the heart of Britain’s response in attempting to fight the use of radicalisation, namely through its de-radicalisation programme known as Channel, and the growing Prevent strand which has now been in place for some ten years, aims to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.
Whilst we can, and 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 people have left Britain, many have returned as a security risk and 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 more than this, our communities are becoming more polarised, we are seeing rampant antisemitism and islamophobic attacks 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 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. But it is able to do so because many of the issues those criticising its strategy highlight are a long way from the story of the thousand 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 in the world 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 their 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.
That includes by the way the case of the police “breaking down a door” and saying that “young men had been criminalised and their lives tarnished through the broad stroke of ‘terrorism’.” The reality? Tarik Hassane and Suhaib Majeed, two young people who had the opportunity of a university education, are now in prison facing some twenty years for plotting to murder soldiers, police officers and innocent civilians in French-style drive by-shootings.
Labour must stand side-by-side with the government when it is undertaking genuine counter-terrorism operations against known suspects and leave behind those within its leadership who stand with organisations who conflate this type of urgent and necessary action with other programmes such as Prevent.
Labour must not allow itself to be sidelined by debating on the fringes with a 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.
This is absolutely damning of those who claim to have the interests of those at risk of radicalisation at heart and shows just how far the party has to travel.
In the last few days of this leadership election, my advice to Owen is to ignore the chorus and announce 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 should be twofold: firstly, ensure people cannot become targets for radicalisation by building strong communities with the support they need to counter it; and secondly, hunt down known threats, identify violent extremists who are trying to leave Britain to fight for our enemies and prevent terrorist attacks from happening.
1. 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. The party 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.
2. 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-held 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.
3. Deliver more resources to counter-terrorism operations – Labour 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.
4. Go further than the Home Affairs Select Committee recommendations and disband and replace Prevent – Combining anti-extremism and counter-terrorism operations under CONTEST has failed to give assurances to many communities that they are not targets. Labour should therefore call for Prevent to be disbanded from CONTEST and the funding transferred and 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.
5. Pledge to restore citizenship education in all schools, no matter what their structure – Finally, through a 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. It should 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 - including mental health.
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 sidelines of the political debate and untangle itself from people who have taken their eyes well off the mission at hand.
Any security agenda should be crystal clear – defeating ISIS, keeping Britain safe and strengthening our communities.
Labour must show that it can and will lead the fight.