Cameron’s hopeless case against AV

A point-by-point rebuttal of the Tory leader’s speech against electoral reform.

David Cameron's speech against electoral reform performed a valuable service by highlighting how weak the arguments against AV (and for FPTP) are. Here's my point-by-point rebuttal.

1. AV is disproportional

The evidence shows that AV would have produced even larger Labour landslides between 1997 and 2005 . . . and larger Conservative ones in the 1980s.

Cameron is right. In a landslide situation, such as 1983 or 1997, AV does increase the winning party's majority as second-preference votes tend to follow first-preference votes. A fully proportional system is more desirable. But this is not as strong an argument against AV as some opponents suggest.

The system is designed to ensure that the government elected has the broad support of the majority of the population. Labour would have won more seats in 1997, 2001 and 2005, as Lib Dem voters preferred them to the Tories. Unlike under first-past-the-post (FPTP), it is not possible for a government with minority support to win a large majority.

In any case, the logical conclusion of Cameron's argument is to support proportional representation, not FPTP.

2. AV is too complex

I don't think we should replace a system that everyone gets with one that's only understood by a handful of elites.

How stupid does he think the electorate is? The fact is, millions of people already use the system. AV is commonly used for internal elections in businesses and trade unions, for most student union elections, for many American mayoral and district elections, and for Labour and Lib Dem leadership elections. In practice, no one has ever complained that the system is too complex.

3. AV means that some people get two votes

[I]f you vote for a fringe party [that] gets knocked out, your other preferences will be counted. In other words, you get another bite of the cherry.

What's wrong with taking second preferences into account? Cameron uses the example of the "BNP or Monster Raving Loony Party" voter who gets "another bite of the cherry". But what about the Tory supporter who wants to vote for their party in a Labour-Lib Dem marginal? Under AV, they can vote for the Conservatives without fear of enabling a Labour victory (by putting the Lib Dems as their second preference). But FPTP means they must either take this risk or hold their nose and vote for the lesser evil. AV would dramatically reduce the need for the depressing act of tactical voting.

4. Only three countries use it

Only three countries use AV for national elections: Fiji, Australia and Papua New Guinea.

But this fact has no bearing on the intrinsic value of the system. As John Rentoul has argued, this is "akin to saying that we shouldn't have an NHS because other countries don't".

5. AV means more hung parliaments

Hung parliaments could become commonplace.

Having complained that AV will lead to more disproportional outcomes, Cameron now warns that it will lead to more hung parliaments. He can't have it both ways. But that glaring inconsistency aside, he's wrong about hung parliaments. Australia uses AV and has returned one hung parliament in 38 elections. Conversely, FPTP in Britain delivered hung parliaments last year, in 1974, in 1923 and 1929 and twice in 1910.

Ultimately, whether or not AV results in a hung parliament (or a one-party majority of 200+) depends on the will of the voters. It's called democracy. Is Cameron opposed to this?

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.