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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Here's what Theresa May could say to save the Brexit talks

The best option would be to invent a time machine, but unfortunately that's not on the table. 

One of my favourite types of joke is the logical impossibility: a statement that seems plausible but, on closer examination, is simply impossible and contradictory. “If you break both legs, don’t come running to me” is one. The most famous concerns a hapless tourist popping into a pub to ask for directions to London, or Manchester, or Belfast or wherever. “Well,” the barman replies, “I wouldn’t have started from here.”

That’s the trouble, too, with assessing what the government should do next in its approach to the Brexit talks: I wouldn’t have started from here.

I wouldn’t have started from a transient Leave campaign that offered a series of promises that can’t be reconciled with one another, but that’s the nature of a referendum in which the government isn’t supporting the change proposition. It’s always in the interest of the change proposition to be at best flexible and at worst outright disregarding of the truth.

Britain would be better off if it were leaving the European Union after a vote in which a pro-Brexit government had already had to prepare a white paper and an exit strategy before seeking popular consent. Now the government is tasked with negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union with a mandate that is contradictory and unclear. (Take immigration. It’s clear that a majority of people who voted to leave want control over Britain’s borders. But it’s also clear that a minority did not and if you take that minority away, there’s no majority for a Leave vote.

Does that then mean that the “democratic” option is a Brexit that prioritises minimising economic harm at the cost of continuing free movement of people? That option might command more support than the 52 per cent that Leave got but it also runs roughshod over the concerns that really drove Britain’s Leave vote.

You wouldn’t, having had a referendum in inauspicious circumstances, have a government that neglected to make a big and genuinely generous offer on the rights of the three million citizens of the European Union currently living in the United Kingdom.

In fact the government would have immediately done all it could to show that it wanted to approach exit in a constructive and co-operative manner. Why? Because the more difficult it looks like the departing nation is going to be, the greater the incentive the remaining nations of the European Union have to insist that you leave via Article 50. Why? Because the Article 50 process is designed to reduce the leverage of the departing state through its strict timetable. Its architect, British diplomat John Kerr, envisaged it being used after an increasingly authoritarian state on the bloc’s eastern periphery found its voting rights suspended and quit “in high dudgeon”.

The strict timeframe also hurts the European Union, as it increases the chances of an unsatisfactory or incomplete deal. The only incentive to use it is if the departing nation is going to behave in a unconstructive way.

Then if you were going to have to exit via the Article 50 process, you’d wait until the elections in France and Germany were over, and restructure Whitehall and the rest of the British state so it was fit to face the challenges of Brexit. And you wouldn’t behave so shabbily towards the heads of the devolved administrations that Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and Carwyn Jones of the Welsh Labour Party have not become political allies.

So having neglected to do all of that, it’s hard to say: here’s what Theresa May should say in Florence, short of inventing time travel and starting the whole process again from scratch.

What she could do, though, is show flexibility on the question of British contributions to the European budget after we leave, and present a serious solution to the problem of how you ensure that the rights of three million EU citizens living in Britain have a legal backdrop that can’t simply be unpicked by 325 MPs in the House of Commons, and show some engagement in the question of what happens to the Irish border after Brexit.

There are solutions to all of these problems – but the trouble is that all of them are unacceptable to at least part of the Conservative Party. A reminder that, as far as the trouble with Brexit goes, Theresa May is the name of the monster – not the doctor. 

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.