The myth of AV and the BNP

The No to AV campaign’s nonsense continues.

The BNP bogeyman is the favoured weapon of the No to AV campaign. Its latest campaign video focuses on the potential power of "unpopular fringe parties" to have undue influence over results in certain constituencies.

"The people who vote for the unpopular fringe parties could end up having the deciding vote," warns the video's voiceover, above an ominous soundtrack. "In over 30 constituencies at the last election, BNP voters could have decided which candidate won the seat. It isn't right."

The main thing that isn't right, however, is No to AV's claim that BNP voters could have decided the results in more than 30 constituencies.

The video warns that in some areas the BNP votes outnumber the majorities of the winning candidate. The accompanying press release lists the 35 seats where "BNP votes" have "the greatest change [sic] of swinging an election".

This is a statement which, as well as being misspelled, is more than a little disingenuous.

One of the constituencies listed is Hampstead and Kilburn, which was carried by Glenda Jackson with a tiny majority of 42. With a turnout of 52,822, under AV the winner would have required a total of 26,411 votes or more (provided every voter had listed a preference for every candidate). The Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem candidates got 17,332, 17,290 and 16,491 votes, respectively.

The BNP, however, got a whopping 328 votes. Even if they voted en masse for another candidate, the mainstream candidates would still be a good 8,000 votes short of the required amount. In other words, "BNP votes" will have barely any influence at all, never mind swing the election. Despite No to AV claims that AV will see parties pandering to BNP voters, Jackson will not be shoving anti-immigrant propaganda through the letter boxes of Hampstead's leafy suburbs just yet.

It's a similar story in Sheffield Central. Labour won with 165 more votes than the Lib Dems. The BNP's 903 votes are significant in such a tight election. But not nearly as significant as the 6,414 votes cast for Conservative, Green, Ukip and independent candidates. The preferences of BNP voters in Sheffield Central cannot swing the election – Tory and Green votes can.

Only in Dagenham could "BNP votes" alone push a candidate above the 50 per cent threshold – as the graphic in the video suggests would happen under AV – giving the Labour MP Jon Cruddas a larger majority. So, let's give the video a more accurate headline: "Under AV, the people who vote for the unpopular fringe parties could end up having the deciding vote – in Dagenham."

Photo: Getty
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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.