The electorate has a critical impact. Photo: Getty
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Forget disillusionment, voters have never been more empowered

The electorate is increasingly promiscuous; MPs have to do more to hold onto their jobs.

In 1951, the apex of Britain’s two-party system 80 per cent of the electorate voted for the Conservatives or Labour at the ballot box. In 2010, just 42 per cent did. The idea of loyally supporting a political party as one might a football club is archaic.

To voters all across Europe leading political parties have become less representative – increasingly identikit politicians arguing ever louder over minute policy differences. The ideological difference between Tory and Labour election manifestos since 1997 has been only a third as large as between 1974 and 1992. A political class has captured leading parties: the number of professional politicians in Westminster has quadrupled since 1979.

These developments have fuelled a loathing of Westminster – a word now said with the same scorn that Americans speak of "Washington". That voters have lost all confidence in mainstream parties to improve their lives is deeply regrettable.

Yet there is a more positive side to this discontent. Voters have never been more empowered: the age of the uniform swing is over and fewer politicians will be able to enjoy jobs for life. The MPs that have long careers will tend to have local roots – 63 per cent of MPs today have pre-existing connections to their seats, compared with 25 per cent in 1979 – and a fierce independent streak. The electorate is increasingly promiscuous, so MPs have to do more to hold onto their jobs. Party affiliation alone is no longer alone.

The electorate welcomes this development. A new Electoral Reform Society report analyses voters in the 40 most marginal Conservative-Labour seats. Because the electorate in these seats have a critical impact on which party forms a government, they might be expected to think highly of the two-party system. Yet, even in these seats, 67 per cent believe that the rise of smaller parties like the Greens and Ukip is democracy – just 16 per cent disagree. Voters prefer to have several smaller parties rather than two big ones by a margin of two-to-one.

Pluralism is here to stay. The trends against the old two parties – the breakdown in class voting, the decline in trade union membership, the collapse in party membership and the proliferation of alternative voting systems beyond Westminster - are overwhelming. As easy as it is to blame David Cameron and Ed Miliband, mainstream politicians all over Europe are experiencing the same problems, as I explored in the magazine last month. Voters feel contemptuous of elites and are rallying against the notion that mainstream parties have ceded power to globalisation.

If mainstream parties are to fight back, it will be by giving up control – allowing supporters, as well as members, to influence policy. The popularity of Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative MP who has a double mandate – from an open primary and then from the general election – shows how this could benefit parties.

But there is a problem. More MPs like Wollaston would make party discipline even harder. In and of itself this could be welcomed: more politicians independent of the party whips would lead to greater voter satisfaction with their MPs. But, in an age when both the Conservative and Labour core vote has been shattered, more independent MPs – even if it led to a slight upturn in support for the two main parties – would make Britain even harder to govern without resorting to a grand coalition.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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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.