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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser