Suffrage On Sufferance: Ken Clarke & Prisoner Voting Rights

[First published in the Morning Star, 28/05/2011]

When the BBC’s Question Time arrived at Wormwood Scrubs last week, justice secretary Ken Clarke was braced for battle: in the same day he’d managed to outrage feminists with talk of “the gradations of rape”, while incensing hardline authoritarians with a plan to dangle reduced sentences for prisoners who plead guilty.

But the lord chancellor was back to his breezy, avuncular self by the time inmate James Patterson got a chance to ask why Clarke’s clemency didn’t extend to allowing prisoners the vote — despite a landmark ruling on the issue in the European Court of Human Rights more than half a decade ago.

“Does denying all convicted prisoners the vote reinforce their alienation from society and discourage rehabilitation?” he asked.

Clarke’s response was unequivocal: so unequivocal, in fact, that he didn’t even need to qualify it with an argument.

“I don’t think it’s part of the rehabilitation of prisoners to give them the vote, and I have a strong feeling that part of the people making the claims are – I’m sorry to say – interested in compensation for failure to give them the vote rather more than they are the vote.

“The fact is, I don’t think it’s resettling prisoners,” he said.

His fellow panelist, professional froth-inducer Melanie Philips, quickly shifted the debate to the more palatably abstract realm of international jurisdiction, while Clarke’s predecessor on the Labour benches, Jack Straw, insisted he’d always opposed the ruling but had never found the right time to bring it up in public.

But not one of them managed in the ten-minute discussion to provide a single shred of evidence to answer Mr Patterson’s question: does denying prisoners the vote discourage rehabilitation? For that matter, what good is there at all in rescinding a prisoner’s right to vote?

Here in England it’s simply the status quo; a literal relic of a bygone age (the Victorians’ Forfeiture Act of 1870, to be precise). But even in New Zealand, where the government’s Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners Bill passed just last year, politicians were at a loss to justify it: Even the law and order select committee that recommended the bill noted in a minority view that “no substantive case” had been put forward in its favour, while Attorney-General Chris Finlayson protested that it was “unjustifiably inconsistent” with the Bill Of Rights Act.

Meanwhile Canada’s Conservative government seems to have grudgingly accepted a 2002 Supreme Court ruling that its own long-time ban had fundamentally breached the Canadian constitution.

Clarke and co. would do well to read Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin’s ruling on the case, which summarised Clarke & co.’s moralising as simply “bad pedagogy”.

The power of lawmakers flowed from voters, she said: therefore depriving people of that power in the hopes of ‘teaching them a lesson’ was more likely to undermine any respect for the law or democracy.

“It says that delegates elected by the citizens can then bar those very citizens, or a portion of them, from participating in future elections.

“But if we accept that governmental power in a democracy flows from the citizens, it is difficult to see how that power can legitimately be used to disenfranchise the very citizens from whom the government’s power flows.”

McLachlin’s ruling touches on another, more fundamental reason why voting aids rehabilitation: prisoners are the ultimate single-issue voters. The state by definition controls every aspect of their lives, and without democratic accountability the pressure to improve living conditions is minimal — conditions which are universally accepted as critical to inmates’ rehabilitation.

Imagine the outcry in Parliament if it was revealed the assault rate had risen by more than 60 percent in the past decade, or if the number of sexual or serious physical assaults had increased by more than two-thirds.

Imagine if it was revealed that police had investigated just 8.3 percent of assault complaints, and less than a third of sexual assaults.

If you’re in Her Majesty’s Prisons, you don’t have to imagine: that’s exactly what the Howard League for Penal Reform reported last year, to deafening silence in the Commons.

The League’s official information requests revealed that the prison service had failed to investigate an incredible 1,443 recorded incidents of violent and sexual assaults in 2008 alone. Out of 1,481 allegations of serious assault, the service investigated just 124 — and of 119 sexual assault allegations, only 33 investigations followed.

With around 85,000 prisoners in England, that’s a group larger than most constituencies. But in liberal democracies, political gamesmanship reigns supreme – and with no voters to court, this fundamental breakdown in the criminal justice system is at best an irrelevance. So both the government of the day and its loyal opposition frown for the respectable public and burnish their tough-on-crime credentials, while the problem continues to fester.

Voting rights then are not just a matter of principle: they are a key protection of other, more tangible rights, like personal safety and equal protection under the law. That’s the thing about universal rights: when you undermine one, you undermine all of them.

But surely the best rebuttal of this blasé myopia was delivered by Jack Straw himself, in the closing moments of Question Time:

“I don’t agree that prisoners should have the vote, and I’ve never had the demand from any of my constituents who end up in prison.

“And I’ve got a number for that.”

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