LibLink: Richard Grayson – Lib Dems must dare to be different over prisoners’ voting rights

Over at The Guardian, Richard Grayson, a Lib Dem parliamentary candidate and former director of policy for the party, argues that the Council of Europe ruling against the UK ban on prisoners voting offers the Lib Dems a chance to seize the initiative. Here’s an excerpt:

While Liberal Democrats have consistently made it clear that they understand the need to punish crimes (despite the way the party has been characterised as “soft on crime” by both Labour and the Conservatives), the party is generally most interested in stopping crime in the first place. One way to do that is to transform prisons from being colleges of crime, to places that turn out people who can take up an honest place in society. …

Neither Labour nor the Conservatives will take up this case. So it falls to the Liberal Democrats to be different, in line with their principles. If being in government is to mean anything, and if the Liberal Democrats really do mean today’s politics to be “new”, then they have to behave in a new way when confronted by the scaremongering of some tabloids. They must also be prepared to confront the Conservatives when necessary. Continuing to take potentially unpopular but right and practical positions on crime will be one measure of how far they have been successful.

You can read Richard’s article in full here.

Jonathan Calder has posted a response to it on his Liberal England blog here, and Jock Coats here.

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This entry was posted in LibLink.


  • Paul McKeown 11th Jun '10 - 2:01am

    a) it has to happen because the law demands it
    b) it is going to go down like a lead balloon in the tabloid press
    c) the Conservatives won’t want to touch it with a barge pole
    d) ergo, the Liberal Democrats must be prepared to be the Conservatives sin eaters on this issue
    e) ergo, the Liberal Democrats should demand something really juicy quid pro quo
    f) perhaps Vince Cable gets to manage the sale of the part nationalised banks to the British public, “popular capitalism” as the Prime Minister called it. Just a suggestion.

  • Good idea.

    And after that, I notice that no other party has come out in favour of hating little old ladies and kittens, so there’s another policy area where we could be distinctive.

  • Paul McKeown 11th Jun '10 - 7:59am


    So, what are you suggesting?

    We continue to break the law?
    Or we scrap the HRA and the ECHR?
    We forget all about that stuff about the independence of the judiciary?
    Or only when they tell us stuff we don’t like to hear?

    No, sorry, doesn’t sound like a Lib Dem stance, that one.

    The fact that Labour has studiously avoided dealing with this, and are, no doubt, chortling at how clever they have been to leave an unexploded bomb behind (another one) for the coalition to deal with, is no reason whatsoever to abandon our principles, otherwise we might as well not bother, we should just scrap the party and join Labour and the Tories.

    What price an MP?
    How much for a councillor?
    What about an MEP?

  • Paul,

    I suggest we let the Tories deal with it. It certainly has to be dealt with, but the Lib Dems have absolutely nothing to gain by sticking their necks out and playing goody-two-shoes on this one. No doubt the Tories will deal with it by ignoring it and trying to delay the case reaching and passing through the ECHR for as long as possible, just as every other European government does when the CoE rules against them. And you know what? I can live with that. The only people who will object are a hand full of convicted criminals. Boo hoo.

    Quite frankly if the HRA and ECHR are forcing such moronic rulings down our throats then maybe it is time we scrapped them.

  • Paul McKeown 11th Jun '10 - 9:10am


    Why is it a moronic ruling?

  • @IainM

    It is an issue of principle which _then_ allows us to be distinctive.

    If you believe that the government of the day has the right to take someone’s vote away [for eg refusing to have an ID Card] then you may be a Liberal, but perhaps not Democratic. We must accept that not all laws are just, and not all opnions upon which laws are based should determine your right to voice your opinion in the ballot box.

    Protecting citizens, constitutionally, from any future government is no bad thing.

    And you must know that comparing this to “hating little old ladies and kittens” is a facecious argument.

  • I don’t see how extending voting rights to prisoners makes one iota of difference to their rehabilitation. The idea that a minor change in the electoral system can help tackle crime is a brilliant example of the nonsensical reasoning we, as a party, have largely now left behind. The only principle it would establish is the principle that (some) Liberal Democrats are obsessed by abstract ideology incomprehensible to an ordinary voter.

    If we could address illiteracy, innumeracy, or drug addiction in the prison population that might reduce re-offending.

  • Paul McKeown 11th Jun '10 - 10:34am


    Addressing iliteracy, numeracy, drug addiction, etc., must of course be the basis of any sensible program of prisoner rehabilitation. But, tell me this, who is saying that the issue of enfranchising the prison population concerns rehabilitation? Surely the basic issue is why should a convict lose the franchise? On what grounds? What does a prisoner choosing his or her MP have to do with their eventual rehabilitation? Surely the loss of the franchise is dangerous, because it means that there is less reason for an MP to consider helping a prisoner, whilst prisoners must be amongst the most vulnerable people in society?

    Look, I know that this will sounds ridiculous to so many people, let’s not pretend otherwise. Nevertheless it is the right thing to do. Just do it, get it out of the way quickly. The civil service must have already drafted the basic framework for doing this, the politicians really need to get out the way on this one. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but as long as you do enough to get the CoE of our backs for 5 years, it’s enough. Politically the imperative must be to get it out of the way as quickly as possible, don’t let it hang around and mess up the next general election. No Tory minister will want to go near this, so it will have to be a Lib Dem. The Tories will have to take the heat for loads of things the Lib Dem won’t want to touch either, so that’s alright. If two parties in coalition can’r run rings around the press, then they don’t deserve to be in politics, keep swapping the blame around and the press will never know who to blame for what.

    And hear is another sign that the Tories aren’t blind to what Labour did to civil liberties: .

  • Well I think Richard Grayson is saying that enfranchising prisoners can help with rehabilitating them.

    The moral question of why prisoners should lose the right to vote during their incarceration isn’t a particularly thorny one for me. The grounds for doing so are the same grounds as why they’re inside in the first place. If we can’t trust someone to walk the streets we can’t trust them to decide who runs the country.

  • Sorry, but this is one of the very few policies where I have a fundamental difference with the party as a whole.

    To me, the right to exercise one’s franchise is probably the absolute key freedom in a democratic society. However, with this privilege must come responsibility, and that means abiding by the law. We would all accept that deprivation of one’s liberty is the key penal deterrent which we have in this country, and if you accept that one of the key freedoms is the right to vote, then there must be the right to withdraw it.

    One thing which I’ve not heard about is – where do you draw the line? If prisoners have the right to vote, do we then have to look at the other groups excluded from part or all of our democratic process? Should we allow bankrupts to stand for parliament, for example?

  • Paul McKeown 11th Jun '10 - 12:32pm


    It’s the law. Like the man, Jailhouselawyer, said, the judges have ruled and ruled clearly.

    Should we all hand ourselves in at the nearest police station and demand to be disenfranchised?

    Let’s just get this one out of the way and get on with more important stuff, it’s not like there isn’t a huge agenda for this government to get through, nor a mountain of problems to sort out.

    I think there are people who just don’t get the HRA at all. The point is, if it isn’t causing bloody screams of outrage at the Daily Mail from time to time, then it’s simply not worth the paper it’s written on. And the one thing we shouldn’t be doing, after the lesson of the last 13 years, is governing by triangulating the Daily Mail. That policy was a disaster.

  • @Paul, agree wholeheartedly with your last paragraph!

    I can see the arguments from both sides, and I do also think that the Government shouldn’t waste time or effort on this given everything else it has to deal with. I also think that there are probably more important human rights violations in the UK which the ECHR should be concentrating its fire on (the continued detention of children of asylum seekers in Yarls Wood, for one.) But I do agree (to a point) with Iain M, in that we shouldn’t do anything about it until it reaches a point where we’re forced to.

    There are many, many things which the HRA and the ECHR get fundamentally right, and, overall, the benefits generally outweigh where it gets things wrong. This, for me, is one of the latter.

  • There is no need for the Lib Dems to “get it out of the way” though Paul, because there are no consequences to the Lib Dems if they do nothing. It’s not holding anything up. It might be worth the fight if there were either electoral or moral advantage to taking this one on, but there isn’t. There is no great principle at stake here, just a dry legal argument based on a bad law. And if the UK government is breaking that law then that’s Cameron’s problem, not ours. Let him take the flak for dealing with it or not.

  • Paul McKeown 11th Jun '10 - 1:04pm


    I’m open to discussion about low-end offenders maintaining the franchise (and have no objection to high-end ones receiving it again on release), but the whole point of gaol is to impress on the perpetrators that they have abused society.

    Fair enough. Could that be a policy? Something like prisoners in the last parliamentary term of their sentence can vote in the constituency into which they will be released? Something like that? I’m not a lawyer, haven’t a clue whether that would meet the needs of the Strasbourg ruling, but just trying to gauge what you think acceptable…

    Which judges? Not ones whose selection process this country’s electorate have a say in. Instead, they hailed from such havens of human rights and stable democracy as Bulgaria and Spain and Italy.

    Not sure whether to take your rant seriously. Have you ever voted for a judge or a magistrate? Are you slagging of Bulgaria, Spain and Italy? Why? Surely even if there were problems with their treatment of human rights it is still our duty to uphold those selfsame human rights?

  • Paul McKeown 11th Jun '10 - 1:16pm


    there is no great principle at stake here, just a dry legal argument based on a bad law.

    I disagree. There must be a better reason for disenfranchisement than a pensioner refusing to pay the water rates, or making a protest about the Iraq war and retaining that part of their income tax, or whatever, and going to prison as a consequence. A blanket ban on prisoner enfranchisement seems disproportional to many offences for which imprisonment may result. What about prisoners on remand?

    Look don’t get me wrong. When Alan Johnson, ostensibly a decent bloke, gets all tough on crime, I understand exactly why. It harms the poorer parts of society disproportionately and he is just sticking up for the great sway of his ordinary and very decent constituents. I get that. Crime needs to be deterred and prison is part of that deterrence. However, I really don’t get what disenfranchisement has to do with this at all. Most prisoners, I would imagine don’t vote and aren’t interested in voting. They don’t see the consequences of their actions on wider society, otherwise they wouldn’t have done whatever it was that they did. Surely it makes some sort of sense to encourage those that, nevertheless, do want to vote to do so, as it shows some sort of interest beyond the solopsistic and egotistical?

  • Paul McKeown 11th Jun '10 - 1:25pm


    All of what you have just written is polemic and of no argumentative value. Good copy but little else.

    The reasons that prisoners should retain the franchise are manifold, but I will start with two:
    a) it maintains a strong link between the prisoner and his or her MP, which for someone in as potentially vulnerable a position as a prisoner is important
    b) it helps reinforce the idea for prisoner that society consists of more than they themselves, and their actions impact on others, voting being an affirmation of the values of society

    I would like to turn the question around and ask you two things
    a) unless they have interfered in the democratic process, what is the justification for removing the franchise from a prisoner?
    b) should even prisoners on remand, presumed innocent, be denied the franchise, too?

  • Paul McKeown 11th Jun '10 - 1:45pm


    a) unless they have interfered in the democratic process, what is the justification for removing the franchise from a prisoner?
    I’ve made my case.

    As usual, argumentative, but no substance.

    b) should even prisoners on remand, presumed innocent, be denied the franchise, too?

    On balance, no.

    A justification for that statement would be in order.

    Now, d’you think the Sex Offenders Register should be disbanded?

    is a ridiculous strawman.

  • Paul McKeown 11th Jun '10 - 1:55pm


    Agreed, me too. Time to leave the sandbox.

  • Patrick Smith 11th Jun '10 - 7:01pm

    In my view the debate on the franchise entitlements of prisoners, including `lifers’ like `The Yorkshire Ripper’, is peripheral to the central core issue that is to do with the 100,000 prisoners being held in severely overcrowded Dickensian UK prisons with the highest `recidivism’/ re-offending rate in the EU..

    I ask is the new Home Secretary determined to raise the bar for the enfranchised families of long term prisoners who visit their relatives each weekend, inside prisons and provide them with a progressive plan for their re-education and rehabitation programme, whilst serving their sentences?

    The epoch breaking L/D inspired and led Civil liberties agenda that is now encompassing into a new Freedom Bill should also contain a set of doable new entitlements for prisoners and their families, especially on behalf of the the children of long term inmates.

  • Patrick Smith 11th Jun '10 - 8:53pm

    Yes, Kehaar, even the best effort at L/D caring community politics on behalf of local residents can be a very `cruel mistress’.

    Labour in my Ward were very undeserving and rode on the back of the general election and higher turn out did not help.

    I shall nevertheless fight on and in knowledge and empathy that several hard working Liberal Democrat Cllrs. suffered a similar fate on May 6th.

    There is still much to play for!

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