Why MPs are having a tantrum over votes for prisoners

MPs believe they are fighting a defensive action from a position of weakness.

The government is due tomorrow to publish proposed legislation to address the European Court of Human Rights ruling that a blanket ban on prisoner voting is illegal. Parliament will be given the option of lifting the ban, adjusting it so that only those serving short sentences are offered a ballot and upholding the status quo. As soon as they are given the chance, MPs will reaffirm the ban. There are few members of the House of Commons who are keen to advertise themselves, in tabloid terms, as soft on villains.

In reality, it should be easy enough to comply with the ECHR without inviting serial axe-murderers down to their local polling station. The assertion that those who have been denied their liberty for committing some crime must also, as a matter of course and without exception and regardless of the gravity of the offence, lose all of their basic civil rights is pretty extreme. Minor offenders could reasonably be given the vote without society falling into ruin. That isn’t how parliament sees it. It certainly isn’t how the popular press sees it.

Naturally, the argument can be framed as a conflict between liberal and authoritarian tendencies. It can also be seen as a battle of wills between a national institution and a European one (not, in this instance, the European Union; the ECHR is the judicial arm of the Council of Europe, although that nuance will be lost in most of the reporting). A vote to uphold the ban will be presented as a defence of national sovereignty. Immense frustration on the Tory side at the government’s apparent inability to evacuate Abu Qatada from UK soil – also a tussle with the ECHR - will galvanise the defiant mood.

But it would be a mistake to see parliament’s assertive impulses entirely as a reaction against Europe. I have been struck by the extent to which Westminster feels itself more generally belittled and ineffective. That feeling was channelled in the Prime Minister’s intemperate lashing out earlier this week at judicial reviews, equality impact assessments and other legal mechanisms that stop the executive from doing what it wants, when its want. Ministers in this government love a good grumble about interference and obstruction from Whitehall lawyers. When those lawyers cite European regulations as the obstacle, grumbles turn to howls.

MPs, meanwhile, feel assailed by hostile media coverage and digital activism which clogs their Blackberries with frothy outbursts from peevish petitioners. Among the 2010 intake there is an added dimension to the irritation. The newcomers would like to be presumed innocent of any expenses fiddling, given that they were not in parliament when the most famous offences were committed, but find themselves still tarred with the broad brush of anti-politician scorn.

Feeling a bit sorry for politicians is a pretty niche area in Britain at the moment. And it would be perverse for MPs to seek therapy for their feelings of inadequacy and impotence by denying that the prison population has civil rights. It is, however, worth noting that when MPs do vote that way, many of them will be acting in the sincere belief that they are fighting a defensive action from a position of weakness, and not, as it may appear from the outside, asserting their strength.

A prison guard at Pentonville prison stands behind a locked gate. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty Images
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Sadiq Khan is the radical Mayor that Londoners need

I've lived and worked in this city all my life. Sadiq is the mayor we need, says Andy Slaughter MP.

I have lived and worked in London all my life and for the past 20 years, as council leader or MP, represented one of its most politically fought over and eclectic parts, Hammersmith & Fulham.

I do not exaggerate in saying much of what makes London communities work is on the line in next year’s Mayoral election.

My constituents, already facing five more years of a Tory Government, need a champion in City Hall.

The current mayor has not proven capable, siding with vested interests over the needs of Londoners.

Whether it is destroying the 100 year-old Shepherds Bush Market or demolishing 750 good quality council houses in West Kensington to make way for high-rise luxury flats, Boris Johnson used his planning and regeneration powers against the wishes of residents and small businesses alike.

Boris was keen to take control of the London NHS but silent in speaking out against hospital service closures at Charing Cross, Ealing or Lewisham.

Another Tory Mayor, however presented, will be no different.

We must win to prevent the hollowing out and social cleansing of London, but we must win for positive reasons too.

That’s why we need a Mayor with a radical and bold agenda for a progressive city. For me, that person is Sadiq Khan.

The son of a bus driver and immigrant parents who moved to London for the opportunities many take for granted, he is a Londoner born and bred.

His family gave the young Sadiq the platform on which he built a career as a leading human rights lawyer, campaigning Member of Parliament and now a frontrunner for the Mayoralty.

That track record of standing up for the rule of law, universal human rights and access to justice is why so many leading figures from the legal world are today supporting Sadiq’s campaign.

Writing yesterday, in a letter to the Solicitors Journal, Michael Mansfield QC, Imran Khan and Matthew Ryder - part of the legal team who secured justice for the Lawrence family - add their support, stating that Sadiq as Mayor would “represent the very best of modern, tolerant and diverse London".

Shadow Attorney General Willy Bach and Shadow Solicitor General Karl Turner, former Director of Public Prosecutions Sir Keir Starmer, former Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry MP and leading human rights lawyers Baroness Helena Kennedy and Ben Emerson, are all supporting Sadiq.

What unites Sadiq’s supporters is a desire to see London governed by a dynamic and modern Mayor, suited to represent this vibrant and diverse city.  That person has to be Sadiq Khan. He can be the champion that Londoners need.