Site Meter

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Why the argument for denying prisoners the vote is incoherent

Why the argument for denying prisoners the vote is incoherent 

Benjamin Brindley exposes the contradictory nature of disenfranchising prisoners

by Benjamin Brindley Sunday 4th November 2012, 19:34 GMT

In light of the recent European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling that a blanket ban on votes for prisoners is contrary to EU law, David Cameron has expressed that he is made sick by the thought of an enfranchised prison population. MPs from both sides of the house agree with him, as do many members of the public – a piece of YouGov research indicates that two-thirds of the British public do not think that prisoners should get the vote.

But why is it that so many people react badly to the prospect? It doesn’t seem likely, given the cross-party agreement, that the government’s uneasiness is related to the political consequences of a voting prison population. Occasionally, logistical concerns are raised about how, and how much it would cost, to collect ballots from prisons or to transport prisoners to a polling station. There are also questions asked about how prisoners votes would be divided between constituencies. Neither of these justifications are worth spending much time on: hopefully it is illuminating to point out that these issues seem not to arise with respect to voters in hospitals or the military.

Considering all of this, then, the real problem we have must be with the act of a prisoner voting, and not with its consequences.

The point most often raised, and probably the most credible one, is that prisoners have broken their ‘contract’ with society, which is why they can and do have some of their rights stripped from them. The idea of a social contract has a long intellectual pedigree and without embarking on a long exegesis, it is fair to summarise basic social contract theory as follows: for the mutual benefit of every individual member of society, a tacit or implied agreement is reached to obey certain rules. A slightly more sophisticated version of this idea is that the social contract is what everyone would accept were they entirely rational. In either case, the basic idea is that people who misbehave have broken an agreement and must be punished (by the stripping of some or all the rights made possible by the said contract).

It is controversial to claim that people would or could give prior agreement, to their state - be that temporally or ontologically. Putting that aside though, what is important is that Britain as a whole feels justified in punishing people for breaking an agreement they never formally made (unless perhaps they are not natural-born Britons). This logic is problematic in that by refusing to abide by the rules laid down by the ECHR, Britain is itself not upholding a contract it entered in a very deliberate fashion. Perhaps it is true that Europe is undemocratic and that Britons do not have enough influence on its decisions. But the relationship between Britain and the ECHR was surely more actively pursued than that which exists between a prisoner who was born into the British legal system and who has had no tangible affect on it.

It seems at best inconsistent and at worst disingenuous, then, that Britain wishes to break a tangible, explicit contract it made with the ECHR so that it can punish as it sees fit the breaking of an intangible, implicit contract it might or might not ‘have’ with its citizens. I would suggest that this argument is a disguise for small-c conservatism and dissatisfaction with Europe. If that is the case, then things looks even less convincing; Britain, having freely entered the ECHR, is now unhappy with its existence and therefore feels justified in breaking its rules. The same logic, we presumably hope, would not be satisfactory in the mind of a potential fraudster, murderer or rapist.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Maybe if David Cameron really understood that prison population and its background, he wouldn't have to become sickened by it.
Yup, it was very easy for him as he was born into so-called proper environment, with care and support, away from rough, dark sides of life.

But it happened - if not you, someone else would sooner or later enforce prisoners' rights so what the hell they are waiting for?

Put your pride aside and start thinking about human rights, not your own leftovers of whim, Mr Cameron.