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8 February 2011

Which way will Labour turn on prisoner voting rights?

The party is set to meet later today to decide a position on the controversial issue.

By Samira Shackle


The controversy over whether to grant prisoners the right to vote rolls on, with Labour set to meet today to decide a position on this emotive question ahead of a Commons debate on Thursday. It is considering abstaining from the vote.

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The move follows an argument between Jack Straw and John Prescott at a meeting yesterday. Straw vehemently opposes the idea, and along with the Conservative backbencher David Davis secured Thursday’s debate by persuading a Commons committee to allow a vote on the matter.

A European Court ruled last year that the current ban on prisoners voting is unlawful, and urged the government to reform the rules. The coalition says it has been advised that if it does not change the law, it could face compensation claims from prisoners in excess of £100m.

During yesterday’s disagreement, Straw argued that this is an opportunity for the Commons to stand up to the European Court. Prescott, who believes that the court’s ruling should be accepted, pointed out that Straw was home secretary when the EU Human Rights Act was signed.

Labour so far has taken a hard line, with the shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, aligning his party with “the victims of crime”, saying that people are “right to be angry” about the proposals. The party proposes a one-year limit on prisoners given the right to vote, rather than four years as proposed by the government.

There may be an element of strategy involved in this. As the Independent‘s Andrew Grice explained in January:

Labour delayed a decision on implementing the court’s ruling before last May’s election but is now ready to form an unlikely alliance with Tory MPs in an attempt to force a U-turn. More than 40 Tories are said to oppose the government’s plan – potentially enough to defeat it with the backing of the Labour opposition.

A Commons defeat for the government would be embarrassing. It has already backtracked on plans to end ring-fenced budgets for sport in schools and to cut the Bookstart scheme to avoid this outcome.

With all backbenchers granted a free vote on the issue, the likelihood is that the government will not win any Commons vote. Only the Liberal Democrats back it with any consistency, and they have a relatively small number of MPs.