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
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Jeremy Corbyn secures big victory on Labour's national executive committee

The NEC has approved rule changes which all-but-guarantee the presence of a Corbynite candidate on the ballot. 

Jeremy Corbyn has secured a major victory after Labour’s ruling executive voted approve a series of rule changes, including lowering the parliamentary threshold for nominating a leader of the Labour party from 15 per cent to 10 per cent. That means that in the event of a leadership election occurring before March 2019, the number of MPs and MEPs required to support a candidate’s bid would drop to 28. After March 2019, there will no longer be any Labour MEPs and the threshold would therefore drop to 26.

As far as the balance of power within the Labour Party goes, it is a further example of Corbyn’s transformed position after the electoral advance of June 2017. In practice, the 28 MP and MEP threshold is marginally easier to clear for the left than the lower threshold post-March 2019, as the party’s European contingent is slightly to the left of its Westminster counterpart. However, either number should be easily within the grasp of a Corbynite successor.

In addition, a review of the party’s democratic structures, likely to recommend a sweeping increase in the power of Labour activists, has been approved by the NEC, and both trade unions and ordinary members will be granted additional seats on the committee. Although the plans face ratification at conference, it is highly likely they will pass.

Participants described the meeting as a largely low-key affair, though Peter Willsman, a Corbynite, turned heads by saying that some of the party’s MPs “deserve to be attacked”. Willsman, a longtime representative of the membership, is usually a combative presence on the party’s executive, with one fellow Corbynite referring to him as an “embarrassment and a bore”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.