Prisoners shouldn’t have the right to vote

Even radicals who struggled for democracy did not think convicts should be enfranchised – and with good reason.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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Looking back, there was something grimly ironic about last week’s face-off between the British parliament and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). On the one side you had elected MPs painted as the opponents of democracy after they overwhelmingly voted against the ECHR’s ruling that the automatic ban on prisoners voting should be lifted. And on the other side you had those unelected, unaccountable unknowns over in Strasbourg appearing as fearless champions of democracy by calling for the enfranchisement of those currently residing at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.

How did this through-the-looking-glass moment happen? How did the ECHR, an inherently undemocratic institution usually seen challenging democratically elected lawmakers, come to play the role of democracy’s biggest fan? It just doesn’t make sense.

Or at least it doesn’t if you take the debate at face value. For beneath the all-too-emphatic surface rhetoric, an unreasoned whirl of ‘fundamental rights’ and ‘human dignity’, there is little of democratic substance to the demand that prisoners should vote. Quite the contrary: the idea of the vote in this debate comes to be as demeaned as its underpinning – liberty – is degraded. This becomes clear with a little historical perspective.

Now admittedly, human rights-spouting critics of the ban on prisoners voting are all too aware of precedent, relentlessly pointing out just how antediluvian the prisoner-voting bar is, given that it stretches back in various forms to the medieval idea of ‘civic death’. But what is rarely pointed out is that this bar is not just a long-term staple of establishment thinking. In fact, virtually every anti-establishment struggle to expand the franchise, from the Levellers through to the Chartists and later to the Suffragettes, not only paid no attention to the voting rights of prisoners, but often explicitly denied them.

Take the Levellers’ 1648 January petition to parliament, for example. While demanding ‘that Birth right of all English men’, government by consent, ‘be forth with restored to all’, they did make an exception: those ‘legally disfranchised for some criminal cause’ should not be able to vote. Or again, take the Chartists’ demand that ‘every male inhabitant of the United Kingdom, he being of age and of sound mind… [be granted the right] to exercise the elective franchise in the choice of Members to serve in the Commons House of Parliament’. Providing, that is, they are a ‘non-convict of crime, and not confined under any judicial process’. Again and again, the same exception is made, not by virulent conservatives but by those deeply immersed in democratic struggle.

This was not just a residual legacy of the classic liberal idea that those violating the social compact ought to have no say, for the duration of their imprisonment, in the future of that society. After all, many of those struggling for political emancipation were often banged up themselves for breaking extant laws. I doubt, therefore, that incarcerated freedom fighters such as the Leveller John Lilburne, the Chartist William Benbow or Suffragette Olive Wharry found the idea of prisoners voting quite as nauseating as prime-minister-cum-drama-queen David Cameron seems to have done recently.

Rather, for those who fought for political emancipation, the struggle for enfranchisement was tied up with the urge to exercise greater control over their lives. That is, the vote meant something: it promised self-rule; it promised sovereignty; it promised, to quote Leveller Richard Overton, freedom from ‘[dependence] upon the will of arbitrary powers’. So to grant prisoners the vote, to give it to those utterly dependent upon the will of arbitrary powers, just would not have made sense. It would have divorced the self-willing content of liberty from its form. It would have rendered the vote academic, in the pejorative sense. Yet as Sylvia Pankhurst pointed out in 1915, ‘the brave old reformers did not want the vote for merely academic reasons… They wanted to give every man an equal chance to share in controlling the destinies of the nation.’ (1)

Today, though, those making the case for prisoners voting, whether slumbering at the ECHR or campaigning at the Prisoners Reform Trust, seem to have little interest in the actual stuff of freedom. As they see it, the vote’s primary purpose is to make prisoners feel better about themselves. It is part of the process of rehabilitation, argued Lib Dem MP Tom Brake during last week’s parliamentary debate; it is a civic duty, observed Juliet Lyon, the head of the Prison Reform Trust; it give prisoners back their human dignity, noted the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg.

All of which tells us less about the UK’s 70,000-odd prisoners’ view of the vote than it does about the self-appointed advocates of prisoners’ right to vote. This is not a political right that’s being granted; it’s a therapeutic sop. It is not a case of prisoners demanding the vote (despite the exceptions, such as John Hirst, who first took the case to the ECHR in 2004). It is a case of the vote being doled out by those who have lost all sense of its meaning.

Not that we should be surprised that the vote means so little that justice minister Kenneth Clarke could blithely dismiss the whole debate on the grounds that it’s ‘a right that [prisoners] probably wouldn’t bother to exercise if we gave it to them’. When a legal oligarchy such as the ECHR can pose as a friend of democracy, it reveals the extent to which the vote, as an expression of freedom, has been eviscerated.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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