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

Umaar Kazmi
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“They should be on bended knee apologising”: Chris Williamson warns Corbynsceptic Labour MPs

The MP for Derby North on his return to Parliament, why Labour won in marginal seats, and how party unity could have led to a Labour government.

At 5am on election morning, Chris Williamson was ceremonially tearing up some binbags. Two dustbin liners had been taped over the gold and green “Chris Williamson MP” sign on his Derby North constituency office since 2015. When it was announced that he’d won England’s most marginal constituency back from the Tories, he headed down to the old office with his team, and they tore the binbags down, dust raining upon them.

“Those black bin liners taped round were like a reminder whenever you glanced up that, one day, it’d be nice to pull that off,” he grins. In his two years away from the Commons, having been beaten by 41 votes last election, Williamson had been using the office as an advice centre.

Before then, the former bricklayer had represented the Midlands constituency from 2010 to 2015, having served as a local councillor – and twice as council leader – for two decades.


All photos: Umaar Kazmi​

Now he’s back, and squatting in a vegan-friendly café along the river from Parliament as he waits to be given an office. His signature flatcap sits on the table beside a glass of sparkling water.

“I’m not a fan of that place anyway, really, it’s horrible and oppressive, and not really fit for purpose,” he says. “That’s the slight downside. It goes with the territory I suppose. If we could move out of Westminster, that would be nice – somewhere like Birmingham or Manchester or Derby even – the centre of the country, isn’t it?”

“New Labour’s dead, buried and finished”

Perhaps this distaste for the bubble is to be expected, as Williamson is an ardent Corbynite. I followed him on the campaign trail before the election, and he was championing Jeremy Corbyn’s policies and leadership on every doorstep. It seemed a rather brave move among many undecided voters at the time, but has now been vindicated. You can almost tell from his trainers, crumpled polo shirt and contended expression that Williamson is supremely comfortable in the most left-wing Labour party since he became an MP.

“New Labour’s dead,” he says, his eyes twinkling. “No doubt about that. It’s dead, buried and finished. It's a regrettable chapter in our history. Historians will think ‘my God, what were they doing?!’” he cries.

Williamson believes he won due to Jeremy Corbyn’s character, the manifesto, a “fantastic” local campaign, and an “outstanding” national campaign. He thanks Momentum activists rallying so many people that they often had 20 teams canvassing simultaneously in his seat. And he praises an online campaign that targeted different demographics – Ukip voters in particular would mention his videos.

“If they’d been more supportive then we’d have got over the line”

“We targeted some elements of our campaign to specific cohorts,” he says. “For example, we did a message online to people who had supported Ukip previously about how a Labour government would genuinely take back control, take on the corporations, bring back the utilities into public ownership – rather than controlled by international, global corporations many of which are ripping us off.”

Williamson adds that young people were enthused by the pledges to scrap tuition fees, abolish zero-hours contracts and raise the minimum wage. He also saw Tory voters switch, attracted by a policy programme that he describes as “common sense” rather than radical.

He admits that people warned him to “disassociate yourself from Jeremy if you’re going to win” when he began campaigning. But he tells me he would “have sooner lost than gone down that road”.

But he has strong words for those who were more sceptical, saying they “let down their members” and lamenting that “if they’d been more supportive over the intervening period, then we’d have probably got over the line”.

Williamson calls on all the Corbynsceptic MPs to apologise: “They should be down on their bended knees and apologising, in fact. Not just to Jeremy but to the entire Labour movement.”

However, he believes his party is “more united” now than it has been for the 41 years he’s been a member, and is happy to “move on” – expressing his gratitude for how much warmth he’s received from his MP colleagues, “given how critical I’ve been of them!”

It may be Chris Williamson’s time in the sun – or the “sunshine of socialism” as he puts it, quoting Keir Hardie – but he does have jitters about his majority. It is 2,015 – the digits matching the election year when he was defeated by the Tories. “It’s a reminder that we lost then!” he laughs.

> Now read Anoosh on the campaign trail in Derby North with Chris Williamson

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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