It probably won't count. Photo:Getty
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First past the post is sounding its death knell

Under a proportional voting system, voters could support a range of parties knowing their vote would genuinely count. 

With less than a week to go before the General Election, much of the talk has been about the unpredictability of the result: which party will have the most seats, and who will make deals with whom. Yet this is precisely the kind of talk that our First Past the Post voting system was supposed to avoid.

The current system is supposed to produce majority governments: and it’s clearly failing on its own terms. But it’s also failing to reflect how people are actually voting in the 21st century – that is, for more than two parties.

In the situation of a hung parliament, when every MP will count, that will make a huge difference as to who forms a government. When votes aren’t accurately turned into seats, the implications for democracy aren’t good, to say the least.

And people are starting to show their discontent. A new poll by BMG Research has found that 74 per cent of the British public back a more proportional voting system - they want their votes to fairly translate into seats. Support for proportional votes is strong among supporters of all parties, with 79 per cent of Conservative voters, 81 per cent of Labour voters, 83 per cent of Liberal Democrats, and 70 per cent of UKIP voters backing proportionality.

It’s also consistent across all age brackets and social backgrounds, and is mirrored in last week's YouGov LivePoll. There is, it seems, something instinctive and intuitive about the idea that votes should equal seats.  

In some ways, it’s not surprising. Everyone wants their vote to count. But they’re not getting that under our current system.  Almost every poll has Labour and the Conservatives on less than 70 per cent of the popular vote. Yet they’re expected to get around 83 per cent of seats. Meanwhile the Greens and Ukip could get nearly a fifth of the vote but less than 1 per cent of seats. That’s millions of marginalised citizens.

The situation in Scotland is even more astonishing. The SNP could win every single seat – on just over half the popular vote. Thankfully the party is committed to reforming the current voting system. But the result will be dispiriting for democrats, nonetheless. There are going to be a lot of angry and excluded voters in Scotland after the 7th - not least the 17 per cent who back the Conservatives and 20 per cent who are Labour supporters.

Even the Liberal Democrats, despite talk of them beginning to benefit under First Past the Post, will only get about 4 per cent of seats compared to around 8 per cent of the vote.

When it’s put into perspective, none of this sounds like proper democracy to most people. What kind of politics do we want?

The political landscape has fundamentally changed over the past few years. We are now a truly multi-party country, as the leaders’ debates have shown. But how we vote hasn’t caught up. We’re trying to squeeze seven or more parties into an old-fashioned two-party system. Unsurprisingly, it’s not working. And many figures are now waking up to this fact – from Lord Gus O’Donnell, to Owen Jones in the Guardian.

Under a proportional voting system, voters could support a range of parties knowing their vote would genuinely count. They could vote for who they actually believe in, without worrying about ‘letting in’ a hated party or having to put their cross next to a ‘lesser evil’. And the nearly-400 MPs who occupy safe seats would have to listen to a lot more voters, since other parties would finally stand a chance of getting in.

Whatever happens on May 7, there are going to be millions of voters who have been let down by our archaic voting system. Politicians would do well to recognise it – and put real reform on the agenda. 

Katie Ghose is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society

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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.