Prisoner voting rights can make prison work

The best way to put prison conditions on the political agenda is to give prisoners the vote.

It is no surprise that the government proposal to give thousands of prisoners the vote has caused such a furore in the right-wing press. But while the Lib Dems stay silent about a policy they have supported for many years, the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, has been brave enough to take the press on.

Following David Cameron's cowardly decision to allow his MPs a free vote on the matter – making it very likely that the proposal will be rejected in the Commons next week – Clarke said that he would ask anybody who voted against the proposal to give prisoners serving sentences of under four years the vote "how they are going to explain to their constituents, at a time like this, we're spending money on compensating prisoners".

Predictably, Clarke woke up yesterday to a Sun editorial demanding his dismissal and to a series of rent-a-quote Tory MPs telling whoever would listen that giving criminals the vote is a disgraceful idea and, completely dishonestly, that the proposal was all the EU's fault. The worst offender was Dominic Raab MP, who wrote a tub-thumping article in the Telegraph in which he stated that "the government should refuse to enact EU laws that make no sense". He's factually wrong on several counts.

First, this has nothing to do with the EU. Last year's judgment that Britain is breaking the law by denying all prisoners the vote was the second such ruling made by the European Court of Human Rights, whose rulings are based on the European Convention on Human Rights, which Britain signed up to in 1947. The convention includes provisions on the "right to vote", although it gives countries some leeway on how they apply this. That is why many countries have limits on voting rights for felons or leave the decision to their courts on a case-by-case basis.

Moreover, just as flagrantly breaching EU law leads the country in question to be fined, so will ignoring the court judgment. Since the first court ruling in 2005 that Britain was acting illegally, our prisons have had over 100,000 inmates. Compensating them could cost upwards of £100m.

But more serious than Mr Raab's fabrications are the way they illustrate how debate on penal reform has plumbed the depths. Britain and the US (which, with its huge prison population and dismal record on rehabilitation and reoffending, is hardly a model to follow) are alone in the western world in denying all prisoners the vote. Figures by the Howard League for Penal Reform show that 60 per cent of British prisoners reoffend within two years, with a 74 per cent rate for young men. If other public services had such an appalling record, there would be rioting in the streets.

It is to our shame that these facts are deliberately ignored in debate, while Tory and, sadly, many Labour MPs pander to the editors of the Sun and the Daily Mail. Perhaps this is why our prisons are overcrowded, underfunded and failing? The bang 'em up brigade simply won't listen to the fact that prison doesn't work. Instead, prison is where offenders get angrier, and more likely to reoffend.

This is highly emotive. The idea of rapists, child abusers and other violent criminals enjoying democratic rights leaves a sour taste. Most of us have been victims of crime and it is particularly difficult for those who are related to or are victims of violent crimes. But we should remember the words of the former home secretary Douglas Hurd, who said that, in office, the only pressure on him to improve prison conditions was his own conscience.

In Hurd's words: "If prisoners had the vote, MPs would take a good deal more interest in prisons and making them better." His views are backed up by the Prison Governors Association, the former chief inspector of prisons Lord Ramsbotham, the Prison Reform Trust and numerous other crime reduction charities.

Prisons exist to punish, but also to rehabilitate and ensure that criminals integrate back into society and do not reoffend. They are failing because there is no political incentive to improve them. The best way to put prison conditions on the political agenda is to give prisoners the vote, regardless of how many of them actually vote.

"Votes for prisoners" is never going to be a vote-winner. But MPs should do the right thing and vote next week to give felons the franchise – not just because it's morally the right thing to do but also, to paraphrase Michael Howard's infamous statement, because it will help make prison work.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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