Nus Ghani: Prevent needs to have confidence in its own identity

29 Apr

Nus Ghani is the Conservative MP for Wealdon, and a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange.

When William Shawcross was appointed to lead an independent review of Prevent, I argued he needed to put the fight against non-violent extremism at the heart of the strategy.  As we approach the long-awaited submission of his report to the Home Secretary, interest is increasing.

This week David Cameron, the former Prime Minister, captured an essential element of the challenge facing the Government, in a foreword to a Policy Exchange report looking at Prevent’s critics. Cameron argued that delegitimising counter-terrorism risks enabling terrorism.

The debate around Prevent is not an idle academic exercise – getting it right matters. The murder of my colleague David Amess, the deadly terrorist attack on three gay men in Reading in 2020, and the botched Parsons Green bombing in 2017, all involved extremists who had been in contact with Prevent, but who carried on their path towards violence.

This is not the first review of Prevent, or the first attempt to update our approach to counter-terrorism. In my earlier analysis of Prevent, I likened the post-2011 version of the policy to a satellite that flew at 80,000 feet, without the “boots on the ground” that were also necessary.

As far back as 2015, David Cameron identified the ‘grievance culture’ poisoning the worldview of some young British Muslims. I wrote regretfully of the then-Prime Minister’s analysis: “His ideas failed properly to take hold in Government departments, let alone in communities.” Self-appointed ‘representative’ organisations were also indefatigable in besmirching Cameron’s analysis. They understood too well the threat it posed to their own survival.

Those problems persist and are exacerbated by the use of new technology. To address them, Prevent needs a stronger identity, and it needs to develop the self-confidence which flows from positive leadership. Talking to local Prevent staff, I am struck by their commitment and dedication.

However, those at the coalface sometimes see the Home Office as distant and isolationist. Statements in support of Prevent, whilst welcome, tend to come across as stock responses, when what is needed is sustained engagement from Ministers and senior officials.

Local authorities also have a role to play. Too often they fail to do any mapping exercises locally, struggle to get out and about into the community, and instead rely on ‘gatekeepers’ or a small number of activist organisations who have their own agenda. Yet for all the noise on social media, opinion poll data suggests the uniform opposition to Prevent from ‘representative’ organisations, is not shared by British Muslims.

As part of rebuilding Prevent’s identity, it needs to be restated what it is for. Prevent exists to stop people from becoming supporters of terrorism and stop people becoming terrorists. It must therefore challenge extremism in all its forms, and in a way that is understandable to the public.

One issue Shawcross will have to address is the declining number of Islamist related referrals, in a period where Islamist terrorism and extremism has continued unabated. Where there is considered to be a genuine risk of radicalisation, Prevent referrals may be followed by what is known as a Channel intervention.

The latest Home Office figures for Channel cases in 2020-21 record 46 percent concerned far-right extremism, just over twice the number for Islamist influenced individuals, which actually fell to 22 percent. Britain has a number of angry far-right activists, spewing out bile, and seeking to attract others to their cause in the process. Whilst we can’t ignore the referral data, are we sure fascists and neo-Nazis constitute twice the threat Islamists do?  Shawcross will need to answer questions like this, to ensure Prevent doesn’t lose its way.

To further recast Prevent’s identity, it needs greater transparency, with clear Ministerial control and accountability.  Without this, the opposition will fill the void. This is not to decry Prevent’s critics. It is through debate and critique with democratically elected politicians that policies are improved and fine-tuned.

But the undermining of a counter-terrorism policy is a different matter. For some of Prevent’s opponents, undermining is simply a prelude to abolition. Why would anyone want a permissive environment for extremism? As David Cameron has alluded, society needs to ask much harder questions of anti-Prevent activists.

The quest for constructive criticism has not been helped by the tendency for some of the debates around Prevent to become increasingly absurd. For many for us, for just challenging the critics of Prevent and tackling the issue of Islamist terrorism means we have to deal with abuse and death threats.

It gets worse. I came across comments that suggested that the treatment of British Muslims is on a path to how China treats Uyghur, who are genocide at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. How utterly absurd and shameful – and I should know. I’m the only female MP sanctioned by China as national threat for leading the way in the UK and internationally in exposing Uyghur genocide, trying to save the lives of Uyghur men, women and children.

The Shawcross report is not the first attempt to recalibrate Prevent, but it is perhaps the most important. It must signpost a way for Prevent to refashion its identity. We know too well the risks of not getting it right.

James Somerville-Meikle: The Conservative Party must address its blind-spot towards people of faith

27 Jan

James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs at the Catholic Union of Great Britain.

“Muslimness was raised as an issue”. Those words from Nusrat Ghani on why she was dropped as a Minister in February 2020 make for difficult reading.

Mark Spencer, the Chief Whip, has said the words did not come from him and the case is now rightly the subject of Cabinet Office investigation.

But whatever the outcome, it’s clear that the row has reignited fears that the Conservative Party has a blind spot – or perhaps even deliberate bias – against people of faith.

Of course, it’s important to keep this in context. The Prime Minister said at PMQs this week that “we don’t care what religion you affirm – all we care about is whether you are interested in ideas of aspiration and opportunity.”

In the round, I think he is right. I am always struck when I go out campaigning by the range of people drawn to the Conservative Party – from all walks of life and every part of the United Kingdom.

However, there is a sense that in some sections of our Party there is a lack of understanding about people of faith. Nusrat has clearly felt it and it’s something that people from other faiths have felt as well.

It was three years ago that Conservative peer, Baroness Warsi, described the Conservative Party as “institutionally Islamophobic”. That lead to the Singh Investigation, which is worth looking at again in light of the current claims.

The report from Professor Swaran Singh, published in May last year, found that anti-Muslim sentiment remained a problem in the Conservative Party. It also revealed that two-thirds of all incidents reported to the complaints team at CCHQ related to allegations of anti-Muslim discrimination.

However, the Singh Investigation also commented that “the cultural values of several minority groups like Hindus and Sikhs were the same as those of Muslims – strong family and intergenerational bonds, self-reliance, community support and extensive social capital”.

These values are so obviously matched by the values of the Conservative Party, yet the Singh Investigation found that “the Party was not seen as a natural political home for these communities.”

A similar missed opportunity exists among other groups, including Catholics. Concepts of individual responsibility, compassion, and the dignity of work contained in Catholic Social Teaching are also Conservative values.

And yet the Conservative Party hasn’t always recognised the potential for finding support among the Catholic community in this country, and perhaps our party hasn’t always looked that welcoming.

I recall during a selection meeting a couple of years ago being asked if there were any Conservative Government policies I disagreed with. The only one that came to mind was the two-child cap on the childcare element of Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits – a policy I believe discriminates against larger families.

In a 20-minute selection meeting, around half of the time was taken up discussing my views on that particular subject. I answered the questions as clearly as I could, saying I felt the policy went against my faith and my conscience. I received a call shortly after the meeting saying I had been rejected by the selection committee.

I am not suggesting for one moment that this was a case of discrimination, or that my “Catholicness” was the reason I was rejected as a candidate.

But I’m not convinced that the people on the selection panel that day really understood where I was coming from, and perhaps this added to the overall view that I wasn’t a sound candidate. I have heard similar stories from Catholic friends.

Again, it’s important we do not lose sight of context. At the end of the Second World War, you could count the number of Catholic Conservative MPs on one hand – today we have one as Prime Minister!

Links between Catholics in our Party are being strengthened by a new group started last year. Catholics in the Conservative Party now has ten parliamentary patrons and members at all levels. But clearly there is more work to do – especially in making our Party more appealing to the 4.5 million Catholics in this country.

The need for better engagement is true for other faith groups as well. The Singh Investigation was clear that the Conservative Party needed to do more to engage with the Muslim community. CCHQ has been advertising for a Race and Faith Engagement Officer – whoever is appointed will have a lot of work to do, but will also find a huge amount of potential support amongst faith groups in this country.

As Pope Benedict XVI said in his Westminster Hall speech in September 2010: “Religion is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation.” We must make sure that the contribution of people from faith groups is recognised in our Party as well.

Ben Obese-Jecty: As an ethnic minority party member, my experiences have been positive. But Singh’s report shows room for growth.

27 May

Ben Obese-Jecty is a former British Army Infantry Officer and stood as the candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in the 2019 General Election.

The publication of Dr Swaran Singh’s independent investigation into alleged discrimination within the Conservative Party has made for interesting and at times tough reading for Conservative members.

Allegations of discrimination, particularly racial and specifically Islamophobic, have dogged the party in recent years, and while this report offers a welcome degree of closure to the issue, it also offers a robust and granular view of where there is significant scope to address current failings.

My own experience as a party member spans across multiple associations, as an association executive officer and even as a prospective parliamentary candidate, but across these varied groups I am yet to experience, or indeed encounter, any racism. Even within the febrile atmosphere of social media, particularly Twitter, I am yet to experience any intra-party bigotry.

The findings of Singh’s investigation are thorough and sometimes scathing, pulling no punches in revealing the number of incidents of alleged discrimination and their respective outcomes. It is notable that the investigation details how the party takes an even-handed approach to the handling of all complaints, whether they are anti-Muslim in nature or otherwise. But amid the findings and recommendations it is also important to recognise that the report found no evidence of institutional racism, which is hugely welcome.

While those on the Left continue to bivouac on the moral high ground on matters of race, despite the damning EHRC report into Labour anti-Semitism only last year, the abuse I have endured during my time in politics has always come from the supposedly more “inclusive” end of the political spectrum. A narrative that often depicts black Conservatives with the ugly neo-racism of race-treachery, of “Uncle Toms” and “House Negroes” accompanied by social media memes of tap-dancing cartoon characters that play on the most racist tropes of the American Deep South. This is bigotry that largely goes unseen, or washes over those who are happy to ignore it. To hear it casually used on Good Morning Britain without an eyebrow raised by presenters is astonishing.

The Conservative Party has undoubtedly grown and changed over the course of my lifetime. Where once a non-white Conservative MP would be extremely unlikely, the contemporary party is now more diverse and more representative than at any previous point in its history. Indeed, the Conservative Party has now had double the number of ethnic minority Cabinet members that the Labour Party has had. There are currently as many British Indians around the Cabinet table as the Labour Party have had ethnic minority Cabinet members in its entire history.

Much has been written before of the diversity we have seen in the Cabinet and the great offices of state during this government. More yet has been written by those who view this as the wrong type of diversity, of brown-washing Conservative racism. Accusations that are mired in their own soft bigotry. The belief that black and brown Conservatives lack the agency to forge their own path. But the success that the party has had regarding the diversification of its MPs is indicative of an organisation that has already recognised the need to evolve and is doing so with aplomb.

No political party can claim to be completely free of those with prejudices, be they overt or more pernicious, any large organisation can expect to contain those with unsavoury views. But removing those whose bigotry is known before it can be allowed to fester and spread is a key step to assuaging fears and convincing sceptics that it is an issue being taken seriously.

That the party leadership has committed its time to being subjected to this level of scrutiny should provide a degree of reassurance in that regard, and the fact it has agreed to implement all of Singh’s recommendations in full shows the party’s commitment to improving things where there have been failures.

The findings from the Singh investigation propose deep reforms and provide a welcome chance for the party to assess how best to adapt and address the opportunity to make it a political home for all those who wish to be a part of it. As a party we should welcome measures that can help address existing shortcomings, transform the way the party works and broaden its appeal beyond its core voter base.

While the Conservative Party has not traditionally been seen as a natural home for voters from Britain’s ethnic minority populations, there is no reason why an ideology that speaks to personal responsibility, hard work and aspiration cannot continue to win support from those who feel that they are values which represent them. With the party committed to a levelling up agenda across the country, why shouldn’t a place where talented individuals are able to thrive no matter their background be the most attractive proposition?

Rakhia Ismail: I was a Labour Councillor in Islington for nine years. Here’s why I’ve joined the Conservatives.

18 Nov

Cllr Rakhia Ismail represents Holloway Ward on Islington Council.

I was a Labour Councillor for nine years and the Mayor of Islington for one year. Now I’ve joined the Conservatives. It’s time more people knew why.

Let’s start at the beginning. I was born in Somalia, a country plagued by violence and lawlessness, a country so dangerous that I needed to escape. I arrived in London as a refugee looking for a safer, better life.

I fell in love with this city straight away. I fell in love with the people, the surroundings, the belief in fair play, in doing the right thing, and working hard. Trust me when I say it’s a completely different life to the one I escaped. I managed to go to university and become the first hijab-wearing Somali councillor and Mayor in the UK.

So I wanted to use my experience to give back to my adopted home. I wanted to use my experience to help Londoners with the problems they face. That’s why I joined the Labour Party. That’s why I stood for my local council. And that’s why I was honoured to be elected Mayor of Islington, which was great news for both the Somali community and Muslim community.

After all, my experience means I understand London’s problems. My attachment to this country means I care deeply about the issues Londoners face. But my race meant Labour only ever saw me as the black candidate, one there to tick a box.

This may upset some people in Labour. Sadly, I’ve learned that the truth often upsets people in Labour — from some MPs in Parliament, to some members who aren’t as kind and gentle as they claim to be. The fact is I was made to feel like a token candidate, someone picked not for my principles and values and long-standing community activism, but for the colour of my skin. Someone who was supposed to be seen and not heard. And that’s not Rakhia Ismail.

When I spoke out about knife crime, Labour weren’t interested. When I spoke out about discrimination in the party, Labour turned a blind eye. When I tried to represent Londoners on the issues they care about, Labour essentially told me to know my place.

These weren’t just one-off incidents. They happened all the time. In 2019, I was invited to Labour’s first National Women’s Conference. The invitation they sent listed my address as ‘Somalia’. This can’t have been an accident, given I’d never listed my address as Somalia. It was an attack on a woman of colour who had been picked to prove Labour’s diversity but had turned out to have a mind of her own with vision and courage.

And while the Labour Party are very quick to accuse others of racism, they’re much slower to see it in their own ranks. Islamophobia is rife in Labour. As the UK’s first hijab-wearing Mayor, I wanted to organise a celebration for Eid in 2019; Labour bigwigs managed to cancel it, crushing the hopes of thousands of young British Muslims in Islington. I was fighting a party that virtue signals on issues such as race but in reality, take no action to address inequalities.

I’m not someone who believes in just doing what she’s told. Would you stay quiet when Londoners are worried about their safety? Would you ignore the countless times that some elected Labour representatives discriminated against a woman of colour? I thought I had joined the party of fairness and equality. But I realised I’d joined a party that thought discrimination was okay as long as they were the ones doing it.

It was around this time, when I was Labour Mayor of Islington and increasingly unhappy, that I started to hear things about Shaun Bailey. It’s no secret that Labour voters are fed up with Sadiq Khan, a Mayor with big responsibilities and absolutely no intention of living up to them. But not many Labour voters were talking about Shaun – at least not back then.

So I made it my business to find out. And I discovered that, like me, Shaun had a tough early life. Born in a council house, raised by a single mum, he went through periods of homelessness and unemployment. He didn’t arrive in politics from a thinktank or PR firm. He spent twenty years as a youth worker, helping young people get out of crime and into work.

Shaun is different to any politician I’ve seen. He doesn’t read from a script. He doesn’t play political games. He’s stared down discrimination. He’s not afraid to speak out about the challenges we face. And, as I’ve learned, he would never silence anyone trying to do their job.

The more I heard about Shaun and the more I heard him speak, the more inspired I became. Shaun is everything that Sadiq Khan is not. Where Sadiq just cares about politics, Shaun cares about people and the issues that matter to Londoners. Where Sadiq Khan just cares about his next press release, Shaun cares about getting things done.

I realised that I had no choice but to back Shaun. I didn’t support Sadiq during selections to be the London mayoral candidate and there’s absolutely no chance I could support him this time. I was discriminated against by some elected Labour officials. I couldn’t speak out about the issues that matter to my residents. And I was excited at the idea of Shaun becoming Mayor. He has the same vision, passion, compassion, and commitment to London that I have.

That’s why I quit the Labour Party for good and joined the Conservatives. I am so thrilled to team up with Shaun. And over the next few months, we’re going to work together and give Londoners the bold vision that this city deserves.

I am an optimistic and forward-looking person. And I can see Shaun is the one to restore hope and faith for all Londoners, the one to deliver a safer, fairer, more affordable city. Which is exactly what Londoners care about — and exactly what my voters care about. I am counting on you to campaign with us and help elect Shaun Bailey, the Mayor that London deserves.