Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'

With the Isis murderer known as “Jihadi John” unmasked as Mohammed Emwazi, attention has shifted away from the three British teenage girls who are believed to have travelled to Syria to join the organisation.

Yet the way Shamima Begum and Amira Abase, both 15, and 16-year-old Kadiza Sultana apparently used social media to engage with extremists is at the forefront of the counter-terrorism battle that, at the moment, the authorities appear to be losing. Yvette Cooper tells me that Facebook, Twitter and other tech firms need to join in the fight.

She says the Prevent strategy, set up by the last Labour government to turn away individuals from going down a course of extremism, is not working as it should.

“You are talking about under 16-year-olds – in the end this is actually about child protection,” says the woman who, if Labour form a new government in three months’ time, will be the Home Secretary and deciding policy on such issues.

“Given how we know young women are being abused and exploited in Syria, we have to do everything we possibly can to prevent young women being groomed or exploited,” the shadow Home Secretary tells me over the desk in her office at House of Commons.

She wants Britain to launch its own social media strategy to encourage young people to turn away from extremism. In the US, the State Department uses Twitter to propagate the slogan “think again, turn away”, while in France the government has launched its own anti-propaganda online platform under #StopDjihadism.

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Kazida Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum; Yvette Cooper says the Prevent strategy, set up to turn away individuals from going down a course of extremism, is not working as it should

“Some other governments have tried to start doing things, including through social media, to challenge some of the myths that are being propagated and to simply provide the facts about what is going on in Syria. There’s not really much of that happening in Britain, she says. “We need to think afresh about how you challenge these sorts of ideas from the very start, how you stand up against extremism and challenge that kind of ideology.”

There are also steps that social media could take on counter-terrorism, just as they are on tackling child abuse images; and last week Facebook launched a suicide-prevention tool where users can alert the site if they are worried about a friend’s state of mind.

“At the moment some of the online social media organisations will do more around child abuse than on counter-terror or terrorist threats. This is challenging for all of us because the technology is moving at such a pace and people’s use of it is changing all the time. I don’t think we can just stand back and ignore it. It’s about how you engage with young people and give them the resilience to stand against extremist pressures or to stand against radicalisation.

 

“And it’s about recognising that children can be vulnerable and that some people will exploit that vulnerability in different ways. We have a responsibility to stop the exploitation and to do everything we possibly can to keep children safe.”

Ms Cooper has asked current Home Secretary Theresa May for further details on how the authorities dealt with Bethnal Green Academy in east London, where the three girls were pupils.

“When you had the case of one girl from Bethnal Green Academy reportedly going to Syria before Christmas, then you need pretty rapid intervention in the school in the community and in friendship groups – that’s not just about social media, it’s about direct intervention. I don’t really think we’ve got a Prevent programme that can do that at the moment.”

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Home Secretary Theresa May has been challenged to provide further details on how the authorities dealt with Bethnal Green Academy, where the three girls were pupils (EPA)

Ms Cooper is also critical of the coalition for downgrading control orders to TPIMs (Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures), which impose weaker location restrictions on suspects. She cannot comment on the Emwazi case, but asks: “Did the downgrading of control orders cause problems in terms of making it easier for extremists to associate with each other?”

In the wake of the Stoke Mandeville report into Jimmy Savile’s abuse and the more recent scandals involving Rotherham and Rochdale, Ms Cooper said there was more the Government can do on child protection. A Labour government will create a new cross-government child protection unit, with a greater focus on online abuse, she says.

“What worries me is you feel as if you can see scandals of the future happening now. And every time we have one of these inquiries… they always come out with a similar set of conclusions. Children weren’t listened to, not enough was done, people… decided it was too difficult because it was a new and uncomfortable thing to have to deal with, so everybody just drifted along and somebody didn’t step out and say ‘We should act’.

“It feels the same now with online abuse, that everybody just feels it’s just too difficult, nobody quite knows how to respond and yet the consequences for children’s and teenagers’ lives could be huge.”

Then, with May in mind (the month not her Tory opposite number), she sends a stark warning to any colleagues debating a future Labour leadership contest to “sort themselves out” and focus on the election, which she believes the party is in a “strong position” to win, although “We know we have got to work really hard for every single vote.”

But, if there was to be a leadership vacancy, would she stand?  “The only, only, focus has got to be on May and winning… we’ve got to win because there’s too much at stake – with public services, the economy, with jobs. Everybody has to focus on that.

“We’ve got just a limited number of weeks left and we’ve just got to throw everything at working incredibly hard to win that election.”

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