Voting in El Salvador. (Photo: Getty)
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Women are at risk of falling off the electoral register - and out of the political debate

Turnout was lower among women than men at the last election, and the problem could get worse.

As we take the time to recognise and celebrate the achievements of women today, it’s important to recognise the low turnout of women at the last general election. A study carried out by the ‘House of Commons Library at the request of Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman, showed that 9.1 million women didn’t turn out to vote in the 2010 general election’.  The number of women turning up to vote has declined over the years. In 2005 and 2010 there were more male voters than female. Furthermore, 64 per cent of women voted in the last general election, compared to 67 per cent of men. The difference is even wider amongst younger voters with only 39 per cent of young women voting compared to 50 per cent of young men.

The general election on 7 May is going to be crucial and the number of women that turn up to vote will certainly make an impact on which political party gains power. It’s therefore really important that women turn out to vote. It is alarming to read that in 2015 that the turnout gap between sexes is getting wider, with women falling further behind when it comes to voting.

Gender inequality stills exists in the UK. The Equal Pay Act was passed 44 years ago and women still earn just 81p for every pound a man earns. Furthermore, the government’s own figures estimate that two-thirds (400,000) of those hit by the bedroom tax are women.

It is clear that there are many issues that affect women, but I believe that voting enables you to push for greater equality. It’s important that women are informed that the coalition has made changes to electoral law which means that registration must be completed individually, rather than by household. I know from speaking to many people in my role as a councillor that a lot of people are not aware of these changes, which potentially means they’ll miss out on being able to vote. I believe that it is important that people are informed of the changes, but unfortunately, the government reforms have failed to tackle this. Women not turning up to vote will be particularly bad for UK democracy because governments develop policy and party manifestos to appeal and reach out to voters and, largely, ignore those that don’t vote.

There are many factors that have affected the turnout of women going to vote. I come across many women on the doorstep, who are disengaged with the politics, parties and the voting process. Currently, men outnumber women 4 to 1 in Parliament, where women just make up just 22 per cent of MPs.  I am part of the Fabian Women’s Network Executive and we try to hold and attend events involving and encouraging women to participate in policy matters. We also offer a mentoring scheme to help women develop their political and public life skills.

All political parties need to come together to broaden the opportunities of the electoral process. A lot of women, like young people live on mobile phones, tablets and laptops and we should move towards online voting to tap in those that are already engaged in politics through various means such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs. On Tuesday 2 March, Areeq Chowdhury, Founder of WebRoots Democracy launched his report ‘Viral Voting’ in Parliament. The findings in the report show that online voting would encourage women, particularly young women, to vote than it would for men. Furthermore, that it could boost overall turnout in a general election by 9 million and boost youth voter turnout by 1.8 million, taking turnout to 70 per cent, up from 44 per cent in the 2010 general election. With these figures in mind, I urge you to read the report and join WebRoots Democracy’s campaign for online voting as it has the potential to help increase female voter turnout.

Abena Oppong-Asare is a Councillor in Bexley, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Group and on the Fabian Women’s Network Executive. She tweets @abenaopp.

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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.