In agreeing to enfranchise UK prisoners, we forget that voting is more than a right

The decision by the European Court of Human Rights to enfranchise UK prisoners reveals a more general attitude towards the vote. The European establishment has ceased to believe in voting as a means to effect change; the act is viewed only as a duty and a right.
Suzy Dean
2 February 2011

A decision by the European Court of Human Rights on giving prisoners the vote in the UK is causing controversy. Following a case taken to the ECHR in 2004 by a prisoner, John Hirst, the government is being advised to enfranchise prisoners in time for the May elections or face substantial compensation payouts. Hirst had won his case by arguing that not being allowed to vote while in prison was a breach of his human rights.

Despite Cameron claiming he was ‘absolutely horrified’ at the thought of changing the law, the decision is fully in step with contemporary attitudes in the UK about the vote and what it means.  The idea that prisoners should be part of the democratic process is the offspring of three prevailing orthodoxies: firstly, that voting is more of a social inclusion tool than a social change tool; second, that voting is a right that can be taken, given and manipulated to fit the whims of politicians; lastly, and underpinning points one and two, is that voting is no more than a tokenistic action in the absence of radical politics.  

The ECHR ruled in favour or Hirst because they were taking a view of voting through the prism of ‘rehabilitation’ for offenders. This is not a million miles from the changes in education which teach children the importance of voting as part of citizenship class. Voting has been rebranded from a means to social change to a socialising and civilising act in itself. David Aaranovich in The Times justified prisoner votes because he argued that voting is a ‘civic responsibility’. When the vote is seen as a social inclusion tool it is not surprising that the idea of giving prisoners the vote is viewed positively.  The logic follows that if prisoners vote and we respect their ‘rights’ they will feel a part of society and be less likely to offend. The social inclusion argument has gained prominence because there is not a lot between voting for the Labour Party or the Conservative Party today. When both stand for a managerial approach to the economy, housing, transport and education, voting has to be sold to people as something that they should do for reasons outside of its ability to affect social change, because it is a duty, a responsibility, a right.

The ECHR ruling reveals the contradiction and confusion within the European establishment over the importance of the vote. Losing the right to vote is an important punishment because it tells those who break the law that they have lost their role in directing society, one of our most important freedoms. To give prisoners the vote reveals that the ECHR do not view the vote as an important right but a political pawn which can be given away at a whim. This example does not sit on its own. UK party campaigns to make the vote compulsory have been pushed so that politicians feel they have legitimacy in the face of dwindling turnout. When European leaders received a ‘No’ from the Irish over the Lisbon Treaty their response was to force another vote until the ‘right’ answer was given. ‘Many Europeans don’t understand how we are building Europe’, said French president Nicolas Sarkozy after the Irish ‘No’ to the Lisbon treaty in his support of the re-vote. The vote is today used as a tool for the politicians rather than the people.

The move to give prisoners the vote shows how tokenistic the ECHR thinks voting is. John Hirst made the point that  "what you forfeit when you go to jail is your liberty - you know, you can't pop down the pub for a pint, you can't have sex with your loved one, you know, that is what you're actually forfeiting – not the vote." The vote apparently ranks below the right to a pint or a quickie. When there is something to lose – or indeed gain – the vote has real importance. The overthrow of Ben Ali and ongoing demonstrations in Tunisia are part a call for genuine elections at a time when there is no freedom of press, political parties are illegal and the public are suffering the effects of high unemployment. Egypt is similarly challenging Hosni Mubaraks Presidency after thirty years in government and decades of fraudulent elections with some political organisations having been banned from running in election, most notably the Brotherhood. For European leaders the vote is little more than a gesture. The Iraq war was premised on bringing democracy and the vote to the Iraqi people without a second thought as to what would make the vote meaningful, in other words, what the content of the elections would be. When there is nothing really at stake from an election, as within the UK, the vote can be given away because it is of little consequence.

The government has been advised that resisting the European court ruling could lead to compensation pay outs to prisoners which could run into tens of millions of pounds. This is not why we should challenge it. Over the next six months we should all resist the plan to give prisoners the vote because we reject the EU’s gimmicky treatment of something we worked so hard to win and value so highly.

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