David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband walk through the Members' Lobby before the Queen's Speech on June 4, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour is waking up to the issue of tactical voting

The party recognises the danger that the Tories could win by taking a large number of seats off the Lib Dems. 

Tactical voting is an issue at every general election. The antiquated first-past-the-post system means that individuals are permanently confronted by the danger of "wasting" their vote on their favourite party and allowing their least favourite to win. It will be an issue at this election more than the most. In a close contest, the degree of tactical voting could be one of the key determinants of the result. 

It is Labour that has traditionally benefited most from tactical voting. Lib Dem supporters and others have voted for the party in Labour-Conservative marginals in order to "keep the Tories out". In turn, Labour supporters in Conservative-Lib Dem marginals have voted for the yellows in order to deny the Tories additional seats. The extent of centre-left tactical voting (far greater than its centre-right equivalent) helps to explain why Labour's majorities were so large in 1997 and 2001, and why it was able to win a majority of 66 seats with just 35 per cent of the vote in 2005. 

Over the past fortnight, I have been struck by the number of Labour MPs and shadow cabinet ministers who have mentioned the subject to me. They recognise the danger that the collapse in the Lib Dems' vote could allow the Tories to win scores of seats in which they currently lie in second place (of the Lib Dems' 56 seats, the Conservatives were runners-up in 37). While those Lib Dem MPs with super-majorities may be insulated, many others are vulnerable (though in Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg's seat, it is now Labour challenging for first place). If the Tories win enough to offset most of their losses to Labour (which stands to lose seats to the SNP), they could survive as the single largest party. 

For Labour, this poses a dilemma. It recognises that there are a large number of Lib Dem-Tory contests in which it has made little progress since finishing third in 2010. But it is harder than ever to tacitly encourage, let alone explicitly encourage, tactical voting (as Ed Balls and Peter Hain did at the last election). Ed Miliband's declared ambition is to make Labour a "One Nation" party, with no no-go areas, and the Lib Dems' role in government means far fewer than in the past are prepared to lend them their support. 

An additional complication is that tactical voting could lead Labour to win on seats but lose on votes. Should the Conservatives finish first on the latter, it would be far easier for them to justify remaining in government, provided that they can assemble enough votes to pass a Queen's Speech. 

As the election draws closer, the issue of the tactical voting required to defeat the Tories will become increasingly prominent. The former Lib Dem peer Lord Oakeshott raised it this week when he donated £300,000 to Labour candidates in Lab-Tory marginals and £300,000 to Lib Dem candidates in LD-Tory marginals to secure a "Labour-led government". The question now is how others address it. 

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.