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

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The Tories have missed a chance to show that they care about student debt

After condemning Jeremy Corbyn for his "betrayal", the government has still raised the top student interest rate to 6.1 per cent. 

For weeks, the Conservatives have assailed Jeremy Corbyn for his alleged betrayal over student debt. The Labour leader told NME during the campaign that he would "deal with" the issue. But he later clarified that this did not amount to a "commitment" to wipe out student debt (which would cost around £100bn) and that he had been "unaware of the size of it at the time". For this, the Tories have accused him of Clegg-style hypocrisy. 

There is little sign, however, that the attack has proved effective. Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of student debt and Corbyn's language in the NME interview was ambiguous. "I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [student debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off," he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 as part of the coalition. Young voters still credit Corbyn for his vow to abolish tuition fees (were he to break this promise in power, it would be a different matter). 

A further problem for the Tories is that they have spotlighted a problem - student debt - without offering any solution. At present, graduates pay a marginal tax rate of 41 per cent on earnings over £21,000 (20 per cent income tax, 12 per cent national insurance and 9 per cent student loan repayment). This, combined with the average debt (£50,800), leaves them struggling to save for a home deposit, or even to pay the rent. The Conservatives, unsurprisingly, are unable to sell capitalism to voters with no capital. 

Yet rather than remedying this problem, the government has compounded it. The Department of Education has ruled out reducing the top interest rate on student loans from 6.1 per cent, meaning the average student will accrue £5,800 in interest charges even before they graduate.

By maintaining the status quo, the Tories have missed a chance to demonstrate that they have learned from their electoral humbling. Had they reduced student debt, or cut tuition fees, they could have declared that while Corbyn talks, they act. Instead, they have merely confirmed that for graduates who want change, Corbyn remains their best hope. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.