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.

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The real question about George Osborne and the Evening Standard? Why he'd even want the job

The week in the media, from Osborne’s irrelevant editorship to the unrepentant McGuinness and Vera Lynn’s stirring ballads.

The big puzzle about George Osborne’s appointment as the editor of the London Evening Standard is why he wanted the job. The Standard is now just a local freesheet, a pale shadow of its old self. In Tube carriages, discarded copies far exceed those being read. Its columnists are lightweight [Ed: as an occasional columnist myself, thanks, Peter] and its news stale, mostly written the previous day. Critics of Osborne’s appointment describe the Standard as “a major newspaper”. It is no such thing. The idea that the editorship will allow the former chancellor to propel himself towards the London mayoralty is laughable. In last year’s election for mayor, the Standard, according to University of London research, ran twice as many positive headlines about the Tories’ Zac Goldsmith as it did about Labour’s Sadiq Khan. The latter won comfortably. The paper was so supportive of Khan’s predecessor, Boris Johnson, that it became known as “the Daily Boris”. But Johnson, with a high profile from television, hardly needed its backing to beat a tired and largely discredited Ken Livingstone.

If Osborne believes that the Standard offers him a significant political platform, it is just further proof that he belongs to an ignorant elite.

 

Violent legacy

More than anyone else, Martin McGuinness, who has died aged 66, represented how the IRA-Sinn Fein combined uncompromising violence with negotiating charm to achieve its aims. Unlike Gerry Adams, McGuinness admitted openly and proudly that he was a senior IRA commander. In Londonderry on Bloody Sunday in 1972 he carried a sub-machine gun, but apparently without using it. Later that year, he was among a delegation that held secret talks with British ministers and officials. The following year, he was arrested near a car containing prodigious quantities of explosives and ammunition.

Like many who recall the IRA’s campaign in mainland Britain – three huge bombs detonated less than half a mile from me – I could never quite accept McGuinness as a government minister and man of peace. Whatever he said, he did not renounce ­violence. He just had no further use for it, a decision that was reversible.

 

A peace of sorts

When I hear politicians saying they could never contemplate talks with al-Qaeda, I smile. They said the same about the IRA. The idea of negotiation, John Major said, “turns my stomach”. A month later, news leaked of secret talks that would lead to a ceasefire. You can call it hypocrisy but politicians have no practical alternative. Significant terrorist campaigns rarely end without deals of some sort. Even then, dishonesty is necessary. The parties to the Good Friday Agreement with Sinn Fein in 1998 never admitted the true terms, perhaps even to themselves. In return for a role in government, the IRA ceased attacks on the British mainland, army, governing classes and commercial interests. It remained in control of working-class Catholic enclaves in Northern Ireland, where it continued to murder, inflict punishment beatings and run protection rackets. Not a pretty bargain, but it brought peace of a sort.

 

Real war anthems

“We’ll Meet Again” and “The White Cliffs of Dover”, sung by Dame Vera Lynn, who has just celebrated her 100th birthday, are the songs most closely associated with the Second World War. This, when you think about it, is peculiar. Most wars are associated with stirring, patriotic anthems, not sentimental ballads. Even the First World War’s “Keep the Home Fires Burning”, before it mentions hearts yearning for home, stresses the noble, manly instincts that drove soldiers to fight: “They were summoned from the hillside/They were called in from the glen,/And the country found them ready/At the stirring call for men.” Lynn’s songs had only the wistful sadnesses of parting and reassurances that nothing would change.

Their “slushy” tone troubled the BBC. It feared they would weaken the troops’ fighting spirit. Despite Lynn’s high ratings among listeners at home and service personnel overseas, her radio series was dropped in favour of more virile programmes featuring marching songs. Unable to sing to her forces fans over the airwaves, Lynn bravely travelled to the army camps in Burma. A BBC centenary tribute showed veterans of the war against Japan weeping as her songs were played back.

The wartime role of this unassuming plumber’s daughter makes me – and, I suspect, millions of others – feel prouder to be British than any military anthem could.

 

Ham-fisted attempt

After his failed attempt to increase National Insurance contributions for the self-employed, Philip Hammond, it is said, will have a £2bn hole in his budget. It will be more than that. Thanks to the publicity, tens of thousands more workers in regular employment will be aware of the tax advantages of self-employed status and hasten to rearrange their affairs. Likewise, newspaper accountants of old, after circulating memos imploring journalists to reduce lavish claims for “subsistence” while covering stories away from the office, would find a sharp rise in claims from hacks previously unaware that such a perk existed.

 

Battle of Hastings

My fellow journalist Max Hastings, attending a West End play, was once dragged on stage by the comedian James Corden, told to help move a heavy trunk and slapped on the bottom. Ever since, I have approached plays starring comedians warily. I dropped my guard, however, when I bought tickets for a contemporary adaptation of Molière’s The Miser starring Griff Rhys Jones, and found myself drenched when Jones spilled (deliberately) what purported to be fine wine. It was of course only water and, unlike
Hastings, I shall not demand a refund.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution