What could a progressive alternative to the failed “war on terror” look like?

Twenty years ago, a backbench MP called Jeremy Corbyn criticised a new Terrorism Bill that Tony Blair’s Labour government was introducing to parliament. Corbyn said the legislation would curtail the traditional right of those in exile in Britain to campaign for change. The Terrorism Act (2000) became law the following year. And since then, we’ve had a near-annual parliamentary ritual of ratcheting up the powers available to the police and intelligence agencies. There have been fifteen new Terrorism Acts in the last 20 years, together creating a shadow world of state powers in which the legal rights enshrined in the regular criminal justice system are set aside.

The new Left that has blossomed under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has been largely silent on this legacy of counter-terrorism policy-making. In a 2017 speech at Chatham House, Corbyn argued that “the war on terror is simply not working”. Opinion polling suggested a majority agreed. But there has been little discussion in Labour circles of what a progressive alternative to the War on Terror might look like. Indeed, there is a general reluctance to take seriously questions of state racism, whether enacted through counter-terrorism, border powers, or initiatives nominally aimed at tackling gangs or drugs.

The Left needs to be ready to propose concrete alternatives to the prevailing orthodoxies of counter-terrorism, as I argue in a report published this week, co-authored with Ruth Blakeley, Ben Hayes, Nisha Kapoor, Narzanin Massoumi, David Miller, Tom Mills, Rizwaan Sabir, Katy Sian and Waqas Tufail.

Since the late 1990s, the use of surveillance and propaganda has expanded and deepened; military force and extra-judicial killing have become routine methods of counter-terrorism; and complicity with torturers has been normalised. The logic of counter-terrorism has been spread to every sphere of public life in Britain as workers in government services are now expected to become the eyes and ears of national security surveillance. The definition of the threat has itself been transformed: no longer simply a matter of individual acts of violence, but a much broader danger, understood in terms of clashes of culture, ideology and values, implicating an entire generation of young Muslims.

Even leaving aside human rights issues, counter-terrorism policy-making in the UK has failed on its own terms. Through its military actions, it has caused the loss of far greater numbers of civilian lives than any militant groups could ever hope to achieve. All these failures are rooted in a policy process unmoored from any substantial process of democratic accountability. Instead, the aims and means of policy have been set by a security establishment according to its own interests and values. This security establishment has not sought to provide a consistent and precise definition of terrorism, nor to seek to counter terrorism in an evidence-based way. It has not sought to ground security policy within a context of the problems of political violence that communities in the UK face. And it has repeatedly placed loyalty to elite interests above the need to uphold human rights, especially with respect to Muslim populations.

A progressive alternative should start by moving away from elite assumptions about the national interest and root itself instead in the actual security needs of ordinary people. Security should be defined not as the absence of risk but as “the presence of healthy social and ecological relationships”. A national audit of security needs, with genuine local community involvement across the UK, should be conducted to provide a comprehensive view of the expressed concerns of ordinary people. This audit should provide the basis for defining the goals and methods of UK security policy.

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Alongside this, an independent commission to investigate the nature and causes of political violence should seek to involve a broad range of academics, other experts and communities. The government’s current account of what causes terrorism is remarkably simplistic: that terrorism is caused by the presence of extremist ideology, which is defined as the rejection of British values. While this view has been avidly promoted by conservative think-tanks, there is no empirical evidence to support it.

The government’s Prevent policy, which rests on this flawed account, should be ended. Prevent collapses mechanisms designed to safeguard children and young people into the structures of counter-terrorism surveillance. Rather than expect social workers and teachers to become surrogate national security investigators, a better approach is to strengthen longstanding safeguarding procedures with the resources needed for effective delivery.

Central to the prevailing approach to counter-terrorism is the desire to avoid regular, open criminal trials in front of a jury – because juries can occasionally hold the police and prosecutors to account for abuses. Preferred instead are the use of secret evidence, extradition, citizenship deprivation and restrictions on movement and behaviour that do not require a criminal conviction. Indeed, there have been cases of Muslims deprived of their British citizenship by the Home Office and subsequently extradited to the United States, subject to rendition or killed by drone. It is time to return to prosecutions in open courts in front of juries.

In terms of foreign policy, the UK should commit to ending involvement in unilateral military actions. There is also a need to deal with the damaging legacy of the failed policies of the past: we still need a public inquiry to bring out what has been suppressed by secrecy and misinformation.

We have seen over the last four years how the Labour Party under a left-wing leadership has been attacked by its opponents as weak on national security. In the face of this, the temptation is to not rock the boat and allow counter-terrorism policy to remain unchanged. But this would mean, upon coming to power, a Labour government defending itself reactively and inconsistently within a framework not of its own choosing. A failure to develop a progressive approach to security could end up undermining the credibility of a Labour government’s broader policy agenda. A better strategy is to adopt from the outset a coherent, explicitly stated, progressive policy that can be defended consistently and confidently.

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