Labour’s plan to defeat the Tories on prisoners’ votes

A tactical alliance between Labour and the Tory right could force David Cameron to backtrack.

David Cameron recently said that being forced to give prisoners the vote made him "physically ill" and he is likely to be feeling even queasier today.

The news that 28,770 prisoners will be given the right to vote, including 5,991 prisoners convicted of violent offences and 1,753 inmates convicted of sexual offences, has inflamed the Tory right and the tabloids.

It has also provided Labour with an opportunity to attack the Tories from the right for the first time since Ed Miliband became leader. The shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, who served as Miliband's campaign manager during the leadership election, said:

This is a slap in the face for victims of crime. We have already seen the Conservative-led government break their promise on knife crime. Now they are also giving thousands of offenders the vote.

MPs on all sides of the House and the public are right to be angry about this decision. But they should also be angry at the manner in which it was announced – sneaked out on the day parliament broke up for Christmas.

Labour now has a chance to outflank the Tories on this emotive issue and to form a tactical alliance with Conservative backbenchers, as many as 40 of whom are prepared to vote against the government.

The party plans to table a smart amendment restricting the right to vote to prisoners serving up to one year in jail. Under the coalition's plans, all prisoners serving up to four years will win the vote, including sex offenders. It is this that has so aggravated the Tory back benches. The government is legally required by the European Court of Human Rights to end the blanket ban on prisoners but it is still free to set its own limit.

One of the Tory rebels, Philip Davies, tweeted today: "Outrageous stats today show 28,770 prisoners would be given the vote – including 6,000 violent offenders and 1,700 sex offenders!"

Under Labour's plan, these prisoners, who typically serve sentences of more than a year, would be barred from voting. Several Tory MPs including Davies have already pledged to vote for the opposition amendment.

If he wants to avoid his first Commons defeat, Cameron would be wise to back down and agree to a one-year limit. After U-turns on free milk, school sports and, most recently, Bookstart, it looks like prisoners' votes will be next.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.