A Plea for Apathy on Prisoners Votes

Introduction

The Supreme Court will give judgment tomorrow, 16th October 2013, on the issue of Prisoner Voting (Chester and McGeoch) … cue indignation.

I’ve got my own views on the issue, but the question that I’d like to pose is – does prisoners having the vote matter? Do you care if they do? It seems to me that this whole think has been stoked out of all proportion by the usual suspects – the Tory Tea Party folk who, aligned with the authoritarian tendency in the Labour Party are opportunistically using this as an issue to bash Europe and all things European.

Background

A brief history is that on 6th October 2005 the ECHR gave judgment in Hirst v UK (No 2). This held that the blanket ban on (convicted) prisoners voting that is contained in s3 Representation of the People Act 1983 was unlawful (contrary to the ‘Right to Vote’ contained in Art 3, Protocol 1).

The UK did nothing about it and effectively, in the best tradition of desperate litigants, stalled. After the Coalition came into power, the ECHR gave judgment in Greens & MT v UK. This told the UK to get its act together and, er, get an Act together within 6 months, in order to give effect to its judgment and lift the blanket ban.

The UK failed. There was probably one of the most depressing pieces of Parliamentary (in)action as the Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Draft Bill was debated and then kicked off to committee.

For more detail, see the UK Human Rights Blog that has its own section devoted to prisoner voting.

The maths of prisoners voting

At the last election 29.67 million people voted, out of an electorate of 45.67 million. This was spread over 650 seats. The prison population of the UK is about 94,000. Spread out over each constituency (as prisoners would vote in their home constituency, not the prison where they live), this gives an average of 145 prisoners in each constituency of about 70,500. The proportion of prisoners is about 0.2% in each constituency.

The ‘home’ area of prisoners is almost certainly not evenly distributed throughout the UK, and different constituencies have different population sizes, but not so much as to make a significant difference.

Only 8 constituencies in the UK had a majority of less than 145. Even if some constituencies have double the number of prisoners than the UK average, there are still only about 10 Parliamentary constituencies where the votes of prisoners could have conceivably made a difference – and that is only if there is a 100% turnout amongst prisoners, all of whom voted for the party that came second in their constituency.

In any event, the figures for prisoners include those under 18 and foreign nationals who cannot vote. The House of Commons Library gives a possible ‘voting population’ of 66,591, and even that is an over-estimate as it assumes that all those foreign prisoners who are Irish or Commonwealth citizens were resident in the UK prior to their incarceration, and were therefore eligible to vote. In other words, about 100 prisoners per constituency on average.

There were only 5 constituencies with a majority of under 100 at the 2010 election (and 14 under 200). The second most marginal was Hampstead and Kilburn, a three way marginal which Glenda Jackson won with a majority of 42 – here, unless there was an unusually high turnout of prisoners, and they had voted disproportionately for the Tory candidate, then their votes would not have made a difference.

The most marginal seat in the UK is Fermanagh & South Tyrone, which was won by Michelle Gildernew with a majority of 4. That is, I believe, the only constituency where there is any realistic possibility that prisoners voting could have made a difference. Ironically, Ms Gildernew is an MP for Sinn Fein and so, of course, does not take her seat in Parliament. Also of note is that one of predecessors as MP was Bobby Sands, who’s election to Parliament whilst serving a 14 year prison sentence was the main trigger for the 1981 Act (see below).

What we can learn from this? The lesson is simple – move along, there’s nothing to see. The whole argument is a waste of time – if prisoners have the vote, then it won’t make a blind bit of difference to the outcome of a general election. In any event, prisoners tend to come from groups that have a lower engagement with the political process. Another point worth asking is whether, if there wasn’t the lure of a grand or so in potential compensation, how many would be interested in asserting their right to potentially vote?

Anyway. This is before you consider that we could have satisfied the judgment by allowing a small percentage of prisoners the vote (those serving under 12 months for example). We have poured vast sums of money into fighting Court cases and stirring up mock outrage over an issue that is an irrelevancy.

What about the principles?

What about them? Yes principles matter, even if only one person is effected, it effects us all as a community. But let’s not kid ourselves that this is about some great constitutional principle.

Barring prisoners from voting is not in the Magna Carta. In fact, up until Forfeiture Act 1870 those people who could vote did not lose that right if they were sent to prison. And even then, only if sent down for 12 months or more. It was only with the Representation of the People Act 1969 that the current blanket ban on prisoners, because they are prisoners, from voting came about.

One of the inconsistencies in our current position is that a prisoner who is serving less than 12 months is perfectly free (by virtue of s1 Representation of the People Act 1981) to be a member of Parliament, they just can’t vote for themselves. Does that make any sense?

What about the person convicted of drug dealing on a Wednesday before a general election? If he is bailed off for sentence, he can vote. If he was on remand and the jury had waited a day before convicting him, he could vote. If, whilst on remand, he had sent off a postal vote before being convicted and sentenced on the Wednesday, then in reality that will count. The behaviour is all the same, but it is only if he is sentenced that he will lost the right to vote.

Where is the principle in allowing the person serving a two year suspended Prison sentence for manslaughter to vote, but bar the person who is serving 7 days for throwing a brick through a shop window?

Is this whole issue really that big a deal?

Conclusion

Maybe all people in prison should all be allowed to vote, maybe none of them, but don’t kid us by raising some great issue of principle. This is all about Europe and the UK’s relationship with the EU and ECHR. Our Government has been throwing money at the issue by defending Court cases, some of them on fairly spurious grounds, and may well have to shell out a lot in compensation. It’s time that they stopped grandstanding and do what we all have to do – obey the law.

Before this was all stirred up in the press, I am willing to stake a lot of money that the man on the Clapham tube had no idea which prisoners could or couldn’t vote. Nor that they would be that bothered either way.

If Parliament had, quietly, in 2005 put in a provision in one of the multitude of Criminal Justice Bills that we are subjected to, that prisoners serving under 12 months, or under 4 years, or for certain specified offences, or on a case by case basis, could not vote, then everyone would have been happy. We would have fulfilled our international obligations, have spent less money and no elections would have been effected.

The last eight years has been pointless. What is perhaps needed on this is a sense of perspective. This is not the biggest issue we face. This is not a big issue at all. Those who are squealing and jumping up and down should Keep Calm, keep taking their tablets, and find something more important to argue about. It’s time to let apathy reign.

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4 thoughts on “A Plea for Apathy on Prisoners Votes

  1. How many prisoners actually think this is a real issue? It’d be interesting to know how many write to Andrew Turner, Isle of Wight MP (and home of a number of prisons). My guess is ‘very few.’

    • Good point Jon. I imagine that the answer is very few – almost zero.

      At least, it would have been 8 years ago. Now that there is a good chance of any prisoner who complains of a violation picking up a couple of grand in compensation due to the failure of the UK to act, I would imagine that there would be a great many more!

  2. An interesting piece Dan. If it had been widely distributed in 2006 it might have made a difference to the discussion but it is too late now.

    The argument now is about parliamentary sovereignty and who rules this country. If I disagree with the policies of our government I can vote to remove them at the next election or elect a government that will repeal or change a law. I have no control over the ECHR and cannot influence it in any way.

    A benign dictatorship maybe but still a dictatorship.

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