Depriving prisoners of their right to vote: an imaginary dialogue
On 10 February 2011, Jack Straw co-sponsored a resolution in the House of Commons condemning the European Court of Human Rights for declaring Britain in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights by depriving almost all prisoners of their right to vote. Recently, Yvette Cooper, Labour shadow Home Secretary, also committed the Labour opposition to support for the ban on prisoners voting. If, improbably, I had a chance to debate the issue with Jack Straw, our conversation might go something like this:
BLB: Mr Straw, in February 2011 when you spoke against restoring to any prisoners the right to vote, all you did was recall that whenever parliament discussed the issue, it always came down in favour of the ban. You didn’t attempt to justify it: why?
JS: It’s obvious. Anyone who commits a crime loses the moral authority to vote.
BLB: That was an argument used by the Labour government in 2005 in the European Court to justify preventing prisoners from voting. But the European Court found that a prison sentence couldn’t automatically remove a person’s other unconnected rights apart from the right to liberty. There are many who behave in an antisocial manner – tax evaders, for example – but who aren’t in jail: should they be disqualified from voting too? Once the right to vote is made conditional on a citizen’s morals, as defined by the state, you erode a basic foundation of democracy. Universal adult franchise should mean what it says: all adult citizens have the right to vote and the state has no right to remove it from any arbitrarily selected category of people, however obnoxious and unpopular they might be.
JS: Deprivation of the right to vote is part of the prisoner’s punishment, as enshrined in UK law.
BLB: But that just describes the present situation: it doesn’t justify it. Anyway, what kind of punishment is it? Are you seriously suggesting that the threat of losing one’s vote deters people from committing crimes? Or that losing one’s voting rights assists rehabilitation, or discourages re-offending?
JS: It’s clear from the opinion polls, and reflected in many votes in Parliament, that public opinion would be deeply offended if prisoners were allowed to vote.
BLB: Yes, I remember David Cameron saying that the thought of “giving” prisoners the vote made him physically sick. But the European court stressed in its judgement that there was no place under the Convention for automatic disfranchisement based purely on what might offend public opinion.
JS: Maybe so. My main argument in the 2011 debate was that this should be a matter for the British parliament, not for any international court. The judgment against us was purely a matter of interpretation of the Convention: there is nothing in the Convention explicitly giving prisoners the right to vote.
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BLB: But when parliament voted to set up the European Court, it accepted an obligation to abide by its judgements, including interpretations of the Convention. We can’t pick and choose between the Court’s rulings, complying with some and ignoring others. We should champion the rule of law.
JS: Well, I suppose we shall eventually have to do something to comply with the judgment of the Court, such as giving the vote to prisoners serving very short sentences for minor offences. But for most of us even that will stick in the gullet.
BLB: You talk of “giving” the vote to some prisoners, but the right to vote is not yours to give. All prisoners have that right in a democracy: you are taking it away, and you still haven’t offered any justification for doing so, except that not doing so would stick in your and David Cameron’s gullet. Don’t you see that allowing, indeed encouraging, all prisoners to vote could be quite an important element in their rehabilitation and reform, by bringing it home to them that even in prison they are still citizens, with both important unconditional rights and equally important obligations?
JS: As I pointed out in the 2011 debate, I have never heard of any prisoner complaining about losing the right to vote. I doubt whether any but a tiny percentage of prisoners ever voted before going to jail, or are likely to vote after they come out.
BLB: All the more reason to include the duty to vote in the re-education of prisoners to be good citizens on release. Here is a classic example of the Labour Party in Parliament – One Nation Labour just like New Labour – failing to stand up for the rights of one of the most vulnerable, underprivileged and voiceless sections of society, obviously because it fears being labelled ‘soft on crime’ by the tabloids and the Tories. Isn’t it time that Labour gave a lead to public opinion, instead of pandering to the most primitive and reactionary elements in it?
JS: Look, you seem to forget that I am a qualified lawyer, and a former Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor (among other high offices) in a Labour government that won three elections running. What are your qualifications for contradicting me on a legal and political issue like this?
BLB: Sir, indeed I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t regard this as primarily a legal question. I think all prisoners should have the vote, regardless of the European Court. Even if Parliament has to restore voting rights to a limited category of prisoners, and even if that satisfies the Court, I don’t think it would go far enough. I still haven’t heard a single argument for depriving any prisoners of their right to vote. As a lifelong Labour supporter, I am dismayed by Labour’s position on this.
JS: You’re entitled to your opinion. I have more important things to do than continuing this fruitless conversation. I have New Labour’s legacy to defend against the occasional assaults of my good friend David’s young brother. Goodbye!
Footnote: I have placed on my website a short paper providing a selection of references to documents and quotations from them relating to the issue of prisoners’ right to vote and the judgment against Britain of the European Court of Human Rights. This is at https://barder.com/notes-on-the-question-of-prisoners-right-to-vote.