The barren weeks, the amnesiac years

Apparently it will be two years before we find out what the Labour Party stands for in 2011 (or rather 2013). In the mean time, presumably, the Shadow Cabinet can just make it up as they go along – I mean, now that Blairism doesn’t work any more, what else could they do? It’s not as if they could learn anything from the history of the Labour Party before Blair. Or perhaps they’re just working on the basis of waiting for the government to announce something so that they can say “and we’re against that!”.

That’s certainly the kindest explanation for this appalling story.

Following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, ministers propose to lift the ban on votes for prisoners for those serving jail sentences of up to four years. Although David Cameron stressed he was doing so reluctantly, the Liberal Democrats have long argued that prisoners should not be denied the right to vote. Labour delayed a decision on implementing the Court’s ruling before last May’s election but is now ready to form an unlikely alliance with Tory MPs in an attempt to force a U-turn. More than 40 Tories are said to oppose the Government’s plan – potentially enough to defeat it with the backing of the Labour Opposition. Labour wants the right to vote limited to inmates serving up to one year in jail. That would restrict the number to 8,096 of the 83,000 people in Britain’s jails

As it happens, the ECHR isn’t demanding that all prisoners in British jails be given the vote; the court’s ruling allows for national governments to take a view on withdrawing the franchise from particular categories of prisoner. What it has demanded – with the force of law, or at least the force of severe diplomatic embarrassment – is that the blanket ban we’ve had since 1840 be replaced by some kind of detailed policy with some kind of justification. (I doubt that the ECHR would find Labour’s mean-spirited amendment satisfactory – it seems designed to target the category of “won’t be in very long, probably didn’t do anything too bad, and best of all there aren’t very many of them”. But committing the government to yet another position the ECHR won’t accept, thus booting the question into the long grass for another year or so, may well be the object of the exercise.)

Either way – whether this is a wrecking amendment or just a vindictive attempt to weaken the legislation – Labour seem determined to attack the Tories from the Right:

Sadiq Khan, the shadow Justice Secretary, expressed concern that more than 28,000 inmates would be allowed the vote under the Coalition’s proposals. He said: “This is a slap in the face for victims of crime. We have already seen the Conservative-led government break their promise on knife crime. Now they are also giving thousands of offenders the vote.”

The Tory manifesto promised to bring in mandatory custodial sentences for anyone found carrying a knife (yes, carrying). It’s an insanely draconian policy, which they can never seriously have intended to implement. As for the notion that victims will in some way be adversely affected by ‘their’ offender having the vote – how? why? If this is what victims of crime want, then victims of crime are wrong. Actually I doubt that victims of crime want any such thing; left to his own devices, I doubt that Sadiq Khan would come up with this stuff either. What we’re seeing here is (in Andrew Ashworth’s phrase) “victims in the service of severity” – and, what’s worse, severity adopted cynically, in the service of winning votes (from the kind of people who like the idea of prisoners suffering).

Tory MPs also reacted angrily to the disclosure and signalled their willingness to work with Labour on the issue. Philip Davies, Tory MP for Shipley, said: “I have yet to find anyone on our benches who agrees with it. It is totally unacceptable to allow prisoners the vote. The whole point of going to prison is that you lose your liberty; one of your liberties is the freedom to vote.”

“Disclosure”, by jingo. That would be the shock news that the European Court of Human Rights found against Britain’s blanket denial of the vote to prisoners in 2005, since which time precisely nothing has been done to bring Britain’s laws in line with its international obligations. If anything, the news is even older than that: the ECHR’s ruling is entirely in line with the common-law position, as expressed by Lord Wilberforce in 1982. Ruling on a case in which a prison governor claimed to have the right to read prisoners’ mail – essentially on the grounds that it was his house and his rules – Wilberforce found against the governor and stated:

under English law, a convicted prisoner, in spite of his imprisonment, retains all civil rights which are not taken away expressly or by necessary implication

“Expressly or by necessary implication”. Contra the repulsive Davies, this means that a prisoner no more forfeits his right to vote than he forfeits, say, his right to wear clothing in public or his right to speak without being spoken to – or, for that matter, his right to sanitation (yes, the fine old British tradition of slopping-out was found to constitute a breach of human rights law in 2004, and about time too). Certainly it is open to a judge when passing sentence to stipulate that conviction for a particular offence – or type of offence – should lead to forfeiture of the vote; it is even open to Parliament to legislate along those lines. But the blanket denial of the vote to prisoners is almost impossible to bring into concordance with Wilberforce’s statement.

And it’s straightforwardly impossible to reconcile with the ECHR’s 2005 judgment – which is where we came in. The last government’s effective refusal to legislate in line with the ECHR’s judgment, dragging its feet for all of five years, was shameful: it contrasts very unfavourably with the actions of the governments of Ireland and Cyprus, both of which introduced votes for prisoners in 2006. The coalition’s grudging acknowledgment of the reality of the situation is to be welcomed (grudgingly). For a Labour opposition (a Labour opposition, to misquote Neil Kinnock) to campaign against it, lining up with troglodytes like Davies, is really disgusting. It seems that Miliband and his circle are still doing politics the same old way: a nervy attention to the Sun and the Mail from day to day, combined with a kind of dogmatic ignorance of every liberal or socialist principle their party has ever stood for. Why, this is New Labour, nor are we out of it.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted 7 January 2011 at 00:53 | Permalink | Reply

    “The whole point of going to prison is that you lose your liberty; one of your liberties is the freedom to vote.”

    Except your freedom to vote in the House of Lords, of course…

    (OK, so Archer couldn’t do it while he was in prison, unless he could get to Westminster on day release when he was in an open prison)

  2. Posted 7 January 2011 at 23:49 | Permalink | Reply

    An excellent post and a grim warning. I have commented at http://www.barder.com/3037#comment-97240.
    Now is an unrepeatable opportunity for Labour, in Opposition and with a new leader, to change course decisively on civil liberties, human rights and the rule of law. Sadiq Khan’s remarks quoted above, and similar remarks by Ed Balls* about control orders, suggest that the opportunity is about to be thrown away. If it is, Labour will pay a heavy price.
    *http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2011/jan/06/ed-balls-control-orders-clegg. Balls did however go on to express willingness to look at alternatives to ‘house arrest’. But it’s the report’s headlines and introductory summary that will leave an abiding impression and it’s these that have been widely reported.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] Votes for Prisoners! Posted on January 7, 2011 by lukeroelofs Phil has a nice post about the UK Labour Party attacking the government for plans for give (some) prisoners the right to […]

  2. […] it. A rather depressing look at what the effects of the Browne Review will be on higher education. The barren weeks, the amnesiac years – Excellent post by Phil Edwards at The Gaping Silence on some of the posturing going on […]

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