Ballot papers cast in the Newark by-election are counted in Kelham Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.
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One website won't solve the voter registration problem

The government's policy of Individual Electoral Registration will make things worse.

Today, the government has launched a website which allows online voter registration. You can have a look here. This is a really important initiative, which we should all welcome. Now, with a few simple clicks and a national insurance number, people will be able to register more conveniently. Hopefully, the website will be attractive for younger people, who now mostly use online services for personal administration.

Whilst this is a positive development, we should all be aware of the vast challenge we face because of under-registration. There are already around 6 million people eligible to vote who aren’t on the register, with huge disparities between different demographic groups. Around half of 18-24 years olds are not registered, compared to six per cent of those aged over 65. Fewer people from BME communities are on the register compared to white people. Fifty six per cnet of people living in private rented homes are counted, compared to nearly 90 per cent of homeowners.

The government is currently rushing to introduce Individual Electoral Registration – which will require each individual to register, rather than the current head of household. In the short-term, this is likely to make things worse. The government’s figures from their own pilots suggest that nearly 9 million of the current electorate face falling off the register, as they can’t be matched with government-held (DWP) data.

The same groups which are currently under-represented are most susceptible to the drop-off. Transient groups, such as young people and private renters may find their political voice is further stifled. The website will  help mitigate the potentially disastrous decline in registration. But it is not a silver bullet and there is much more we can all do across the country.

Students are a group that are in danger of falling off the register, as they move from home to halls to private renting during their studies. In Sheffield,  my colleague Paul Blomfield MP is working with all the Universities to ensure electoral registration is integrated with the process of enrolling each year. This mechanism is now being adopted by other universities across the country – from Norwich to Lincoln to Liverpool, many Labour MPs, PPCs and councillors are working with NUS and universities to ensure the student voice is heard.

Many Labour councils are working innovatively to ensure their levels of registration are maintained. Local data-matching – matching voters with council-held data – can help locate those in danger of falling off the register. Councils can encourage letting agents to offer voter registration forms as part of their new tenants' kit. They can make this happen in social housing too.

The next Labour government will do its bit. Sadiq Khan and I have already said that we will not implement individual electoral registration unless levels of registration are assured. We are commited to working with schools, as hubs of our local community, to encourage registration and will implement the Schools Initiative, which helped dramatically increase registration amongst young people in Northern Ireland. This ensures teachers and local electoral registration officers are working together to register youngsters . Combined with Labour’s commitment to offering votes at 16 and improved citizenship education, Labour will offer an empowering agenda to young people, who too often feel disengaged from the political process.

The campaigning organisation Bite the Ballot  have been advocating the implementation of the Schools Initiative for some time. They are also undertaking fantastic work on the ground, going into schools and colleges to talk and debate with young people about politics, their communities, their aspirations and their concerns with the aim of urging people to register to vote. Their inaugural National Voter Registration day was a huge success and plans are already afoot to ensure the momentum continues up to the general election and beyond.

At the European elections, only 34 per cent of people came out to vote. A lack of voter registration is one source of the low turnout. Whilst today’s launch is welcome, one website is not going to solve this problem. There is much more work to be done, and Labour is rising to that challenge.

Stephen Twigg is shadow minister for constitutional reform and MP for Liverpool West Derby

Stephen Twigg is shadow minister for constitutional reform and MP for Liverpool West Derby

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.