Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Prisoners' Votes Aren't a Trivial Cause

With Britain's standing in the small community of decent nations and the legality of the general election at stake, even the most cynical of observers may have expected the government to resolve the issue of the prisoners' vote.

As the election approaches, the sharper and more unavoidable the issue becomes. It is even possible that the failure to address the legal judgments made in favour of prisoners may render the election unlawful. The government has been repeatedly warned of this consequence by the parliamentary all-party human rights group and the committee of ministers of the Council of Europe.

Who would have thought, five years ago, a legal and political outcast called John Hirst could resurrect a debate about the nature of our democracy and citizenship that has seemingly ended with the introduction of the universal franchise?

Hirst had a particular status that endowed him with a peculiar legal status. He was serving a life sentence for manslaughter. As with all prisoners, he was denied the vote. Unlike most of his peers, he objected to this situation and challenged the law through to the European court of human rights. The government lost its argument in 2005, appealed, and lost again. The court argued that the ability to vote was such a fundamental component of a democratic society that Britain's blanket ban on prisoners voting was unlawful.

A government founded on some firm political ideology or principle would, at that point five years ago, called upon its strength of principle and resolved the issue. It may have caused short-term political difficulty, but this would have passed.

Instead, the government indulged in obfuscation and delay. It promised a consultation process, then delayed it for two years. It then sat on the results of this consultation for a year, before beginning a second consultation. Along the way senior ministers made it perfectly clear that they would not give prisoners the vote. The government made it equally clear that they would not resolve this issue in time for the general election this year. A legal and political crisis is now a real possibility.

Why has the government been so resistant, why is it willing to risk holding an unlawful election rather than resolve what should be a fairly minor matter? Rather than merely being fear of media and populist outrage, I believe that the government's stance derives in a fundamental way from the status that penal matters have in our social and political culture.

Prisons exist. They appear in the popular consciousness, with media prompting, with some regularity. However, to the detriment of our criminal justice system – and now the political process – prisons act more as a lightning rod for broad, incoherent discontent than as a lens with which to examine our understanding.

The prisoners' vote case, then, is not merely a symbolic matter. That it has led to this point of potential crisis is a reflection of the place of prison and prisoners in our national life - always there, but never meaningfully discussed.

If, in addressing the matter of prisoners' votes, a genuine debate can be fostered and the place and role of prisons in society becomes a matter of genuine consideration then we will all have benefited. It is such a pity that to reach this point has cost many years, much money and so much wasted political energy. As a society we deserve better from our political leaders and, when prisoners have the vote, we will play our small part in insisting that our leaders do engage with these complicated questions. For the good of us all.

from the Guardian Saturday 13 February 2010 16.00 GMT


  1. I may have got this wrong but on your blog on 19th December 2009 I got the impression that prisoners were still expected to pay tax....so if you're expected to pay tax whilst in jail you should have the right to vote for the MP's your taxes are paying - they can't have it both ways.

  2. What was it the Americans said way back when? Oh yes, no taxation without representation. They fought and won (with the help of France) a war over that one.

    The most pernicious thing denying prisoners the vote does is it allows a govt to silence those in prison who broke laws they saw as unjust. I'm thinking about small scale cannabis dealers here for eg but there will be others.

    At least we aren't like those aforementioned Americans. They deny you the vote even after you have served your time. Considering the makeup of their prisons they have used this to disenfranchise poor and black people (often the same thing of course). That our politicians think along those lines (the middle classes are not well represented in prison) is a strong indictment of their claim to be liberals.

    Unfortunately the other lot are likely to be even worse, they don't have to try to make themselves 'tough on law'n'order'.

    Might be funny if they won an election that was deemed invalid . . . I can just imagine the Daily Mail's apoplexy.

  3. Good comment Peter - it seems so basic that prisoners (along with the rest of society) should all have a vote. Whatever makes a government think one should not have a vote because one has committed an offence. Perhaps the MPs should not have a vote as many of them have shown dishonesty with their expenses, and of course, one could go on forever trying to identifying people who should not get a vote - everyone citizen should get a vote and that is the end of it! I look forward to what happens when the election takes places!!!

  4. John Hurst was very eloquent on the argument for prisoners votes on The One Show this evening. Despite the reactionary responses from victims and victims relatives.

  5. Me too. It was terrible.

  6. Yup. Pretty terrible.Just looked like whining about how unfair it was people listen to victims. Not very helpful.

  7. Ben's Guardian piece was far more eloquent, though always remember the ability of TV to edit material to fit an agenda. Interesting that the guests were not opposed to the vote though.