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Prisoners and the vote

I’ve heard lots of politicians puke their outrage at the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling that prisoners should have a human right to a vote. But I haven’t yet heard any coherent explanation from them, why prisoners especially should be denied the vote? Who does it benefit?  Like women, the non-propertied class fought long and hard enough to win it. Maybe if any politician stumbles upon this blog, they could helpfully explain what the problem is?

It seems to be a visceral, Tory thing. Prisoners have placed themselves beyond the Pale, outside the norms of civil society. They are wicked, naughty people, who should be punished, punished, punished. (Now, where did I put that number for Miss Whiplash?) Perhaps it’s just the thought of having to go into Strangeways to canvass the votes that upsets politicians? The voting slips might be contaminated: bloodstained, covered in fingerprints — security-dyed purple?

Because, if it’s the morality thing, that a crime against society automatically deprives the guilty of the right to citizenship (as it deprives the victim of the crime of the right not to be a victim of crime), then what of the many criminals who are given non-custodial sentences by virtue of having committed lesser, or first-time, offences? They still get to vote, though they’re criminals too. And what about prisoners out on licence? I think they’re allowed to vote. (I once stopped in the middle of nowhere and gave a lift to a wan-looking Liverpudlian in a faded blue suit, who explained that he’d just completed a life sentence for killing his wife. He’d found her in bed with another man. He had no intention of killing anybody else. Maybe we should all be allowed one murder, eh?)

So if it’s a moral issue, rather than a logistical problem (which I can see it might be), then there’s a strong moral relativism at work here.

Prisoners still have to pay tax on any income they may have. ‘No taxation without representation’ is a good motto. They still have to pay Council Tax on their home, the TV licence fee, even as the screen flickers unwatched. Their car, parked where they left it (hopefully with the wheels still on), still attracts Road Fund tax. They may not be able to do jury service, but what service has the jury done them? They are subject to the same laws of the land as the rest of us, even inside. And what of their right to vote for someone who will safeguard the interests of their (innocent) families? Prisoners are eventually released: should they not have the right to attempt to determine in advance, who will represent them on the outside? Blanket deprivation of rights is an extremely unsatisfactory moral principle.

In any case, the likelihood of convicts queuing to vote in large numbers is slender: illiteracy and mental confusion afflict perhaps 80 per cent of the prison population, virtually all of whom are alienated from society almost by definition. So here is a modest proposal: there are roughly 88 thousand convicts in gaol in Britain, about the same population as the average Parliamentary constituency. Why not give prisoners their own MP? The ‘Dishonourable member for Parkhurst’, as The Sun would no doubt dub them. If there is one self-defining oppressed minority in Britain, it is surely those who have been deprived of liberty – precisely the condition that requires our protection. Vindictiveness never changes anything.

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