A backbench ‘revolt’ (encouraged by some ministers) has seen the Commons vote down plans to give prisoners the vote. This is in contrast to a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which argued that the ban was against the European Convention on Human Rights. The government now has until August to put forward proposals to enfranchise some, or all, prisoners, or face heavy fines.
Politicians who support votes for prisoners don’t tend to win widespread public acclaim for their stance. The majority of the public don’t think people who go to prison should be able to vote. In many ways, this is understandable. If an individual commits a crime serious enough to warrant a custodial sentence, then why should they continue to enjoy the right to influence the democratic process? Nor has the campaign hasn’t been helped by its unpleasant leader, John Hirst, a cold-blooded killer who recently branded one of his critics an ‘ugly Paki’ for disagreeing with him, noting that “unlike the foreign import Patel, I am a Brit born and bred.”
Yet there are also arguments for giving prisoners the vote too. Most European countries tend to do so, or else have a tiered system, where prisoners who have committed certain offences are able to vote. Just because someone goes to prison and is deprived of the liberty, it doesn’t mean we strip them of all their other rights (for example, the right not to be tortured). It has been argued as well that disenfranchising prisoners make it harder for them to reintegrate into society, as they have less connection with everyday life. Nor does having an odious spokesman doesn’t make a cause less just.
Fundamentally though, it is unclear how much practical impact such a change would have. If 80,000 prisoners were eligible to vote in 600 constituencies, and 50% of them exercised their right to vote, then each constituency would see between 60-70 votes from prisoners. This might be able to tip the balance in a very tight constituency, but politicians could hardly lobby prisoners for votes, as the backlash from other voters would be massive. Nor would all prisoners vote for one party. So the question then becomes a philosophical one: whether or not we as a society think it is right that people sent to prison should be able to vote?
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