Counter-terrorism policy must chart a more progressive course

Earlier this week, at an event in the House of Commons, Demos launched ‘memorandum on the mainstream - memos to labour’s next leader’.

Earlier this week, at an event in the House of Commons, Demos launched ‘memorandum on the mainstream – memos to labour’s next leader’ (pdf). Comprised of six ‘memos’ from former Labour ministers, the publication, produced by Demos’s Open Left project, encourages the next leader of the Labour party to adopt new policy positions which will help Labour to move on from its defeat in the general election.

One of the memos, by former prisons minister Paul Goggins MP, is concerned with security policy. Given the fact that MI5 Director General, Jonathan Evans, gave a speech last night in which he warned it was “a matter of time” before Britain suffers a terrorist attack linked to Somali Islamist group al-Shabab, this memo could not have been more timely. The memo also presciently anticipates Jonathan Evans’ s warning that Britain still faces a threat from dissident groups in Northern Ireland.

Mr Goggins proposes several interesting policies that would help to address these threats whilst restoring our civil liberties. For example, replacing the current 28 days a terrorism suspect can be held without charge with ‘14 plus’, a system where the standard maximum period of detention would be 14 days, but, with strict judicial oversight, this could be extended in exceptional cases.

He also enjoins a rethink of Section 44, the power that police have used to carry out random stop and searches on a massive scale:

Accept that Section 44 in its current form has to go but argue in favour of new or revised stop and search powers in narrowly defined circumstances.

These powers should never have been used indiscriminately – and we had tightened the system up – but when the police and security services have specific intelligence about imminent terrorist activity and do not know the exact identity of those concerned, they need to be able to disrupt that activity in order to protect the public.

All of these ideas are important if Labour is once again to be recognised as the progressive party.

Mr Goggins’s memo also touches briefly on the crucial issues of combating radicalisation and tackling the causes of violent extremism. In particular, he astutely observes that combating radicalisation in prisons and at universities is crucial to any counter-terrorism policy:

You should also assert the importance of coherence and connection between policies that deal with the threat of terror and those that tackle the causes of violent extremism. You should offer a candid appraisal of our efforts in government to combat radicalisation in prisons and universities as well as at community level. We began this work from a standing start after 7/7 and it is important that we share the lessons learned.

He is spot on; universities and prisons (along with online forums and websites) are widely recognised by counter-extremism experts as being among the key loci of Islamist radicalisation. His memo could, however, have expanded on these issues of counter-radicalisation – in particular, a more detailed discussion of how the government should challenge the ideology behind terrorism would have been useful.

The next Labour leader has an opportunity to set out a truly progressive vision for counter-terrorism policy, one where the government concedes that it cannot arrest (or shoot) its way out of the terrorism threat that currently faces the country. To do so, he or she will have to explicitly recognise that the government should work to discourage radicalisation from occurring in the first place.

Under Alan Johnson, the Home Office produced a document which will be very useful to the next Labour leader. Section 3.05 of Channel: Supporting individuals vulnerable to recruitment by violent extremists identifies four factors which make radicalisation more likely:

  • Exposure to an ideology that seems to sanction, legitimise or require violence, often by providing a compelling but fabricated narrative of contemporary politics and recent history;
  • Exposure to people or groups who can directly and persuasively articulate that ideology and then relate it to aspects of a person’s own background and life history;
  • A crisis of identity and, often, uncertainty about belonging which might be triggered by a range of further personal issues, including experiences of racism, discrimination, deprivation and other criminality (as victim or perpetrator); family breakdown or separation;
  • A range of perceived grievances, some real and some imagined, to which there may seem to be no credible and effective non violent response.

The next Labour leader should declare heavy-handed policing to be a thing of the past. Instead, counter-terrorism policy must chart a more progressive course which, whilst acknowledging that policing will always be vital, also challenges the ideology, recruiters, crisis of identity and perception of grievances which lie behind radicalisation.

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