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

Getty
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn's won a monumental victory - but it's more delicate than it looks

The need for peace on the left is overwhelming. 

It is perverse, absurd even, that in the aftermath of such a monumental victory Jeremy Corbyn must immediately talk of coalition building and compromise. Previous winners of internal struggles – most notably Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock – certainly did nothing of the sort, and Corbyn’s victory is bigger than theirs. To an extent, this is not the victory of one set of ideas but the establishment of a new party altogether – with a completely different centre of gravity and an almost completely new membership. 

That new Labour party – and core project that has built around Corbyn’s leadership – is itself a delicate network of alliances. The veterans of big social movements, from the Iraq War to the anti-austerity protests of 2011, find themselves in bed with left-leaning cosmopolitan modernisers and the reanimated remnants of the old Labour left. All parts of the coalition have reason for hubris, to believe that this new formation – complex enough as it is already, and filled with ideas and energy – can carry the Corbyn project into Number 10 with or without the co-operation of his Labour colleagues and the wider left. 

That vision is a mirage. Labour has undergone the biggest membership surge in its history, and is now the biggest left of centre party in Europe. As John Curtis has pointed out, the party’s support has maintained a high floor relative to the level of infighting and sniping over the summer, in part because of Corbyn’s strong appeal to Labour’s base. But the bleak electoral outlook, compounded by boundary changes, requires us to do more than read out lines from pre-written scripts. We must all, from a position of strength, stare death in the face.

The terms of peace with the Labour right must be negotiated carefully. There can be no negotiating away of internal democracy in the selection of candidates or national policy-setting; doing so would permanently weaken the left’s hand and allow Corbyn’s detractors in parliament to run riot. And in policy terms, Corbyn cannot compromise basic anti-austerity principles – not just because doing so would be a betrayal that would demobilise Labour’s new base, but because the project of triangulation pioneered by Ed Milliband is a tried and tested electoral failure. 

And yet the need for peace is overwhelming. At a grassroots level, Owen Smith’s support was not made up of hardened Blairites. Many of them, unlike Smith himself, really did share Corbyn’s political vision but had been ground down and convinced that, regardless of the rights and wrongs, there could be no end to Labour’s civil war without new leadership. The left’s job is to prove those people, and the politicians who claim to represent them, wrong. 

Labour’s assorted hacks – on left and right – often forget how boring and irrelevant the search for Labour’s soul looks to a wider public that long ago left behind party tribalism. The intellectual task ahead of us is about framing our politics in a comprehensible, modernising way – not creating a whole new generation of people who know Kinnock’s 1985 conference speech by rote. 

A united Labour Party, free to focus on shifting the consensus of British politics could well change history. But the grim realities of the situation may force us to go even further. To get a majority at the next election, Labour will need to gain 106 seats – a swing not achieved since 1997. 

Add to that the socially conservative affirmation of the Brexit vote, and the left’s profound confusion in terms of what to do about it, and the challenge of getting a Labour Prime Minister – regardless of who they are or what they stand for – looks like an unprecedented challenge. That unprecedented challenge could be met by an unprecedented alliance of political forces outside the Labour party as well as inside it. 

In order for Labour to win under the conditions set by the boundary review, everything has to be calibrated right. Firstly, we need an energised, mass party which advocates radical and popular policies. Secondly, we need the party not to tear itself apart every few months. And yes, finally, we may well need an honest, working arrangement between Labour, the Greens, and other progressive parties, including even the Lib Dems. 

Exactly how that alliance would be constituted – and how far it would be under the control of local parties – could be the matter of some debate. But there is every chance of it working – especially if the terms of the next general election take place in the context of the outcome of a Brexit negotiation. 

The starting point for that journey must be a recognition on the part of Corbyn’s opponents that the new Labour party is not just the overwhelming democratic choice of members, but also – with a mass activist base and a mostly popular programme – the only electable version of the Labour party in the current climate. For the left’s part, we must recognise that the coalition that has built around Corbyn is just the core of a much wider set of alliances – inside Labour and perhaps beyond.