If we’re going to ban people from voting, why stop at prisoners?

23rd November, 2012 12:02 pm

The prisoner’s right to vote has risen to the surface of the cesspit that is British political discourse, so while we’re at it I thought I’d offer my two penny’s worth. If we’re serious about banning prisoners from sticking an X in a box, why don’t we consider all of our options? While it’s on the table, let’s thrash it out.

Right, people who watch “I’m a Celebrity”, they shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Simply because it clashes with the news, so they’re not informed. People who haven’t studied politics at A Level – they’re also in line for a wagging index finger when you get to the ballot box – how can you possibly have a clue what they’re voting for?

People who don’t work. They don’t pay any taxes, so why should they get to vote for what tax pays for? Students, they’re professional moochers with too many opinions. They want to vote as well? I’m gatecrashing that party.

People who phone into Talk Sport. I’m not having them voting. Far too easily wound up. People with an IQ of less than 100. That’s it, mandatory IQ tests for everyone!

Wait.. sorry. I got a little carried away there. See, when you said it was alright to deny a section of society the vote, I probably took it too far.

When voting is no longer considered a universal right, but instead a privilege that is awarded to those we deem “fit and proper people” we no longer live in a democracy. This entire debate about prisoners voting is pointless. The percentage that would anyway is negligible – it’s like having a debate about whether the Royal Family should get Nectar points.

But with regards to the very few that would bother to vote, OK – you may not like them. That’s fine – I can’t think of any people that actually do like prisoners. But beating them with a stick that denies them suffrage puts the very principle of democracy at risk. (For those of you who have somehow evaded my irony, I don’t want us to ban anyone from voting.)

Instead, I’d rather we put fewer obstacles in the way and made voting easier. Why aren’t we having a debate about the viability of voting by text? Or even online, where it’s secure enough to do your banking but apparently not to vote once every five years? Instead we’re having a debate about getting even less people to vote than the 60-odd percent that bother.

To argue that prisoners shouldn’t have the vote “out of principle” is misguided. The only principle that matters is the principle of democracy.

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  • If we’re going to throw people in prison, why stop with prisoners?
    If we’re going to force people to go to school, why stop with children?
    If the royal family isn’t allowed to vote, why should anybody?

    No, wait… this is a ridiculous argument. Voting has never been a universal right, nor should it be. Prisoners, by definition, lose rights that the rest of us take for granted. If that puts democracy at risk, there has never been democracy.

    • Visual

      If you can “lose” rights then they are not rights they are privileges. Rights are available to all.

    • If rights only exist with exceptions, as Confucius argued, why have any rights at all? Nevertheless, each right should be taken and considered in isolation. For me, democracy hinges on the universalisation (as far as possible) of the right to vote. I don’t believe there are enough constitutional safeguards in place to prevent the sort of scenario I alluded to in the post playing out if we actively deny sections of society suffrage.

  • I was with you right up to the point about making voting easier. I do feel that is a bit of a red herring. With the exception of those with recognised mobility problems, voting isn’t difficult. People don’t vote not because it is difficult to walk a few hundred metres to a polling station at some point between 7am and 10pm but because they can’t see the point in voting and don’t make the effort. If politics were perceived to be more relevant and responsive to people’s concerns, and less hypocritical and entranced by the wealthy/big business, then more would be willing to engage. Look what has happened with the move to more postal voting, the very integrity of the system has been thrown into question.

  • charles.ward

    If you replace “the right to vote” with “freedom of movement” in this article I can be used to argue against locking up prisoners.

    If prisoners can have their fundamental right of freedom of movement taken away why can’t we take away their right to vote? No one would argue that locking up prisoners effects everybody else’s right to freedom of movement.

    “Instead, I’d rather we put fewer obstacles in the way and made voting easier.”

    That would be treating the symptom (low turnout) rather than the real problem (lack of interest in politics).

    • Visual

      Because a right is a right not a privilege. The “punishment” is the locking up. They don’t cease to be people.

    • brianbarder

      Imprisonment inevitably entails the loss of certain rights, including (obviously) the right to liberty and the right to freedom of movement; this is explicitly recognised and permitted in the Human Rights Convention. But imprisonment doesn’t logically carry with it the loss of other unrelated rights: prisoners still have the right to life, the right to a fair trial, the right not to be subjected to cruel or unusual punishments, and many other basic rights. Why single out the right of an adult citizen in a democracy to vote as one that prisoners should be denied? The present law depriving prisoners of their voting rights goes back to the days when imprisonment carried with it “civic death”, including the loss of all rights to property. It’s archaic, illogical, harmful, and indefensible. It panders to the gruesome attachment of the English to punishment and retribution. So why does Labour in parliament, once the party of the weak and the dispossessed, support denying all prisoners their right to vote — accepting that a few prisoners will have to be re-enfranchised only because of the binding judgement of the European Court of Human Rights?

      • LembitOpiksLovechild

        “Inprisonment entails the removal of rights.” We agree on that at least. After that we’re just quibbling about which rights to remove. If society decided that the right to vote should be removed than that’s then end of it. No right is absolute.

  • MonkeyBot5000

    The prisoner’s right to vote has risen to the surface of the cesspit
    that is British political discourse, so while we’re at it I thought I’d
    offer my two penny’s worth.

    I think that’s a little over-valued.

  • Prisoners voting is fine but not as sympathetic about people who can’t be arsed to vote.
    Easy voting opens vulnerable up to their votes being stolen by dominant relatives, proven time & again re postal votes.

  • Worryingly, I think that if you put the question of whether those who don’t pay tax should be allowed to vote into a poll, you’d get a significant minority saying no.

    More generally, I think you’re right. The ban doesn’t act as a crime deterrent, no-one is well behaved in prison in the hope they’ll regain the vote, and no-one is so traumatised by not being able to vote that they don’t reoffend.

    What it does do is impinge on the idea of the universality of democracy.

    I know that all rights have certain limitations, for example, children can’t vote either. But if there is no societal benefit to denying prisoners the vote, then why bother with a policy that reflects badly on democracy?

    Either we think prisoners are human trash, unworthy of a say in the country, or we think of them as people who have done wrong, but whose time in prison is a chance for rehabilitation. I know which side I’m on.

  • Visual

    “When voting is no longer considered a universal right, but instead a
    privilege that is awarded to those we deem “fit and proper people” we no
    longer live in a democracy.” Exactly. Well said Matthew. I find the hysteria that is being whipped up against prisoners having the vote to be disgusting. And as for undermining the European Court on Human Rights, that is disgraceful: that is a right wing agenda.

    The Human Rights Act was one of Labour’s great achievements, but one which they did not defend as robustly as was needed when faced with populist “outrage”. Labour’s position on this is not a principled one but bows to the rule of the mob

    Vicky Seddon

  • franwhi

    What about tax avoiders then ? They are not breaking the law but neither are they contributing their fair share to the country’s economy

  • Voting isn’t a human right. It’s a civil right. By becoming criminals in the eyes of the democratic civilisation in which they live, anyone convicted with a prison sentence has, de facto, removed themselves from the civilisation that they previously could have voted for.

  • brianbarder

    An excellent post: thank you. Universal adult suffrage should be exactly what it says. It’s frustrating to hear Tories — and, sadly, a Labour shadow home secretary — talking about “giving prisoners the right to vote”: the onus is on them to justify denying prisoners their right to vote. Prisoners who are adult and British citizens are entitled to vote, and no-one has so far advanced a single argument for adding to their punishment by depriving them of that right (whether civil or human); the prime minister’s celebrated comment that the idea of prisoners voting makes him “physically sick” falls somewhat short of a rational argument. Indeed I would argue that prisoners should be actively encouraged to vote as part of the process of re-integrating them into society.

    I would also support making voting compulsory for everyone (including prisoners!), as in Australia. But that’s another story.

    • jaime taurosangastre candelas


      does this not “hinge” on an interpretation of the law? It appears from what I heard on Radio 4 that the law in question is the European Charter on Human Rights, and that some lawyers interpret that to mean that voting is a “fundamental” human right, and other lawyers to say that voting is in a second tier of rights, behind the right to life and the right to liberty which they believe are the only fundamental rights. My opinion is with those lawyers, but it is only an opinion.

      There was also the observation on the programme that fundamental rights were applicable to everyone, so to include children, the insane****, the monarchy, the Lords, and everyone else who is also not allowed to vote. If (as I infer from your comment) you believe the right to vote to be “fundamental”, what do you say about the children, the mad, the Queen and even the Lord Mandelson who are disbarred from voting?

      **** And is that not a very contentious definition? For instance, anyone who is tempted to vote for Arthur Scargill’s little party or for Respect seems clearly removed reality to me, but then we live in a democracy and if they wish to waste their vote, well then that is part of democracy.

      • brianbarder

        Jaime, I don’t recognise your reference to “The European Charter on Human Rights” — please see
        The relevant international agreement is the European Convention on Human Rights adopted by the Council of Europe, which came into force in 1950. The Court (the ECtHR) established to interpret the Convention (the ECHR) has ruled, in a judgment that is legally binding on the UK, that the UK’s blanket denial of the vote to all prisoners (except remand prisoners) is in breach of its Convention obligation — with the implication that if only certain selected categories of prisoner were to be denied the vote, the UK might then be in compliance with the Convention, although it would be for the ECtHR in the last resort to make that judgement. Parliament can pass whatever resolutions or laws that it likes reaffirming its belief that no prisoners should be allowed to vote, but that won’t prevent Britain from acting illegally (and laying itself open to formal international censure and compensation claims from prisoners) as long as the present denial of votes to all prisoners persists. Windy rhetoric about the sovereignty of parliament is irrelevant.

        I don’t anyway regard this as a question of how one should interpret the law (which law?), nor even primarily a matter of compliance with our ECHR obligations, although that is the trigger for the current debate. My own view, as expressed here and elsewhere, FWIW, is that universal adult suffrage is an essential component of a democracy, quite apart from the Convention, and that as soon as you start to deny the vote to a group of adults as a means of punishing them, or because you designate a particular category as not deserving the right to vote, you are on indefensible and treacherous territory: if prisoners don’t deserve the right to vote, why should other people who have behaved anti-socially at some point, but who happen not to be in prison, be allowed to vote? Why should former prisoners suddenly become entitled to vote just because they have come out of jail? If you impose any test (such as not having been convicted of an offence nor currently serving a prison sentence for it) for the franchise, why not other tests, such as intelligence, property, knowledge of the constitution, even gender — most of which have been applied in the past? Universal adult suffrage should mean what it says: universal. Children should obviously be excluded (they are not adults), as should those formally recognised as insane, for reasons too obvious to spell out. I see no reason whatever to deprive peers (including members of the royal family) of the vote, especially once we have an elected second chamber and there are no longer peers ex officio in that chamber. The disfranchisement of peers is an anachronistic remnant of the days when all peers were members of the legislature (i.e. the House of Lords) and it was quite reasonably thought inappropriate for members of one chamber of the legislature to vote for the members of the other chamber. None of that has any bearing on the continuing denial of the vote to adults just because they happen to be in prison, for which no justification whatever has so far been put forward, and which is in clear breach of an important democratic principle. I very much regret that the Labour leadership in parliament is unable to grasp this perfectly simple point: Labour of all parties should be especially alert to unfair and unjustified discrimination against any group in society that is vulnerable, weak and without a voice.

        • jaime taurosangastre candelas


          you are undoubtedly correct on the law being the Convention, not the Charter as I called it. I was driving at the time of the discussion, and must have mis-remembered.

          However, the essential point is on whether voting is a universal human right on the same “fundamental” level as the right to life or liberty, and I do not believe that it is (and not just me, it seems: many others think so as well).

          Clearly, you do believe something approaching that, so I will respect your opinion. The debate and the resolution then shifts to the overall balance of many opinions.

          I will also observe that there are perhaps two separate arguments being brought together. The Convention on HR is concerned about human rights, and your arguments are about suffrage in a democracy. It seems to me that they are not the same. If the ECtHR is prepared to judge the UK compliant if we let some prisoners vote but not others as they do for other countries, then it has already conceded this point (I appreciate that you think that all prisoners should be entitled to vote). So with that established, the decision as to which prisoners may or not vote is surely a matter for each country.

          Perhaps the UK should pass a law saying that prisoners sentenced to less than 24 hours should be allowed to vote, and by this deliberate act, tell the ECtHR to get on with examining more important cases. It has over 150,000 individual cases in backlog.

          • brianbarder

            As is often the case, it seems to me unhelpful to get this quite simple issue tangled up in an argument about ‘rights’, although of course we can’t ignore the ECtHR judgment which is necessarily a rights-based issue (because of the Court’s remit) and we’ll have to do something to bring Britain back to legality. We can haggle all day about what kind and status of ‘right’ the ‘right to vote’ has under this or that legal document. It boils down to whether we can agree that universal adult suffrage is essential to democracy, and if so whether it would be a good idea to adopt it.

            As to the suggestion in your last paragraph, I’m sure the ECtHR wouldn’t waste more than five minutes in dismissing it as frivolous, providing no solution to the problems created by our illegal behaviour and our disgracefully tardy and reluctant response to its ruling. But I take it that you were not being serious.

  • brianbarder

    Not so. It’s easy to think of numerous cases of people being deprived of their rights, including the right to life and the right not to be subjected to torture: that doesn’t mean that the rights of which they are deprived are merely privileges. In a democracy the right to vote should be a universal right and certainly not a privilege. Once you start thinking of voting as a privilege, someone somewhere is going to argue that all sorts of categories of people besides prisoners should not be entitled to it, as Matthew Zarb-Cousin’s satirical post points out.

    • LembitOpiksLovechild

      Not so, The right to free speech is limited. It used to be said that you couldn’t shout fire in a public theatre. Now you are not allowed to express your opinion on any number of subjects for fear of someone taking offence and calling in the plod. Free speech is no longer an absolute right so is it a right at all?

  • brianbarder

    This merely states the present position in the UK: it doesn’t offer a single justification for it. Most other democratic countries allow their prisoners to vote, so what you say obviously isn’t some kind of obvious universal truth about democracy.

  • I think voting should be a universal right of citizenship. So, I think Labour has got it wrong in principle. Moreover, we cannot oppose decisions of the ECHR/ECJ without damaging our stance on many other matters. Short sighted, populist grandstanding is not what we should be about

    • Visual

      I agree


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