Why some prisoners should have the right to vote

Giving prisoners a stake in how their society is governed will help reduce reoffending rates.

There is some confusion about exactly what the government's draft bill on prisoner voting will contain on Thursday. What there is no confusion about, however, is that our MPs are strongly opposed to any move to extend the franchise to inmates. In February last year, they voted by a majority of 212 (with only 22 against) to retain the current ban.

There are some who say it is foolish for our politicians to behave in this way as it will result in a confrontation with the European Court of Human Rights. That argument does not cut much ice with me. I don't think we should legislate on this because Europe is telling us to. We should legislate on it because we are a liberal democracy.

When people are locked up for crimes in this country they already have lots of things taken away from them. Their liberty. Their right to see their family and friends whenever they please. Usually their job and their home. Their basic choices about what to eat, when to eat, where to eat and so on. It is right to deprive those who have committed crimes serious enough to warrant a jail sentence of these things. But why should they should automatically have their right to vote removed too?

I can see the argument for not allowing long-term prisoners and those with life sentences the vote. But the majority of prisoners are serving short sentences and, at the time of any general election, most of them will be released before any subsequent election and hence will be affected as a free citizen by the government elected. In the case of referenda, which tend to come around very infrequently, those results could affect the prisoner for the rest of their life. Someone only a few months away from release in May 2011 will be now out and yet may never get the chance to vote on the electoral system used for the House of Commons.

Perhaps even more importantly, one thing that almost everyone across the political spectrum agrees on is that we need to reduce reoffending rates, which in 2011 were running at an astonishing 90 per cent for serious crime.

Giving prisoners the vote will not change this overnight. But treating them with a little bit more respect and giving them a stake in how their society is governed is likely to be one of the things that helps. If we want to reduce recidivism, we need to be willing to think outside the constricted box our politicians have placed themselves in on this issue. A good start would be for the government to acknowledge on Thursday that there is a strong, principled case for some prisoners to have their democratic rights restored.

Not because Europe has told us to, but because it is right.

Mark Thompson is a political blogger, commentator and Lib Dem activist, who edits the award winning Mark Thompson's Blog and is on Twitter @MarkReckons.

David Cameron (R) is escorted by prison governor Phil Taylor during a visit to Wormwood Scrubs Prison last month. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.