Recently, there’s been some controversy as the European Court of Human Rights suggested that denying all prisoners the right to a vote while also denying them the right to an appeal was a breach of human rights. Crumb-spewing social conservatives like David Davis and Jack Straw were up in arms, exclaiming such nonsense as “This is not about human rights, this is about rapists!”.
I have some empathy with those that believe that anybody that breaks the rules of society should be denied a say in its future but ultimately I do not agree. For me, the progression goes like this. The Government sets criminal law. Those that break that law go to prison. If those that are in prison may not vote, then effectively you give the Government the power to decide who may and who may not vote. No Government should have this power. I believe that voting is a universal human right and the Government should never, ever be allowed to take that away from anybody, especially if their reason for doing so is that that person has broken their rules. Imagine for a moment, the Government banned voting Labour and announced that anybody attempting to vote Labour would be sent to prison. Instantly, anybody brave enough to do so would be labelled ‘scum’ by people such as Jack Straws and thrown in a cell. If they had no right to vote, then the Government would just continue in its authoritarian manner.
There is of course, the practical considerations as well as the philosophical. There are few enough prisoners in this country (and I hope it remains so!) that they could not really affect an election outcome if they were voting in their home constituencies. I’d also bet that the turnout rate would be between 10% and 20%. How would being given the vote affect prisoners? I believe that voting is an important plank of citizenship and allowing prisoners to vote would be one baby-step towards helping them feel like productive members of society once more. Disillusionment with the political classes is one major barrier towards troubled types engaging with society.
If we are setting a new precedent that it’s okay to deny the vote to people that we don’t like, I have a few suggestions.