“We have had an excellent debate. Indeed, it has shown the House at its best…”

The smug verdict of Bob Blackman was obviously wrong, yet apposite; borne of his vast 9 months experience as a fresher backbench MP. Last week’s Commons’ self-indulgence on the ECHR’s finding against the UKs blanket denial of votes for prisoners was pretty much a disgrace to democracy; ill-informed, poorly argued, shot through with small-minded prejudice and rather pointless.

Its limited value was the glimpses it offered of some of the newbies in action. Having no truck with duck-houses, apparently they run buy-to-let’s and develop property between making speeches intended to laud British democratic traditions; something of which they seem to know little and care less.

Prisoners’ voting was never discussed in any meeting I’ve been at during 30-odd years in active politics. Yet today it animates hundreds of MPs and journalists who act as though the roof will fall in if any ballot papers get past the guards along with everything else.

What’s voting got to do with crime anyway?

Ten thousand people were murdered in the UK between 1995 and 2009. A shocking figure, certainly, but were other lives saved by keeping prisoners away from the ballot box? Would the crime rate have been higher if they’d been allowed to vote during terms behind bars?

I’ve been a cop show addict from Jack Warner’s Dock Green to Life on Mars via most of The Bill. Yes, I know they’re not real. But can you foresee a scriptwriter ever, ever using the old – ‘I’m not putting my vote at risk gov’nor…’ excuse in any rogues’ dialogue where a baddie resolves to go straight?

I shouldn’t mock really, at least not in these terms, because sadly, the exact converse of this argument is one latched onto by Tory MPs. If it reduced crime they’d have granted prisoners the vote years ago; it doesn’t so they won’t.

At least there’s logic in the argument that it might not be good to have constituencies with prisoners forming a sufficient part of the electorate that results could turn on their enfranchisement. In a few places no doubt, the prison population is greater than a sitting MP’s majority. I’ll bet some have done the sums.

But from whatever quarter it comes, this is claptrap.

It half-assumes prisoners voting en bloc, with participation rates higher than the population at large. Balloting in secret means that if it happened, no-one could know. Criminals might sometimes struggle to, but shouldn’t MP’s get their story straight? If, as a number claim, they’ve never had a letter from a prisoner demanding the vote, and prisoners tend not to register anyway, well how, precisely, does that sit with turning elections?

Is there nothing revelatory, embarrassing or perhaps ominous in MPs puffing-out their chests in a “sovereign Parliament, which has done more to promote democracy and the rule of law than any other” yet in their next breath arguing that individuals’ disinclination to register is ground enough not to grant them a vote?

The Prime Minister says it makes him “physically ill to contemplate giving the vote to prisoners” and he’s right to recognise it’s a gut issue; traditional Tory values from a pre-modern setting. Many whose portraits hang in the stairwell of Number 10 – his predecessors – also had weak stomachs when having to ponder voting by people thought to be of lower moral worth than them.

In lesser jobs an admission of nausea is rare. Though unsurprisingly routine, it’s much less mentioned amongst those who make up by far the largest occupational group in the prison system – soldiers; thought by some to comprise nearly 10% of the people we put away. Heroes to zeros in the time it takes to upset a premier’s digestion. No second chances here, eh, Mr. Coulson, not even for ‘Our Boys’.

The justice system, rather than bloodlines, taxes or landholdings, puts some up-to-date camouflage of rationality over measuring our moral worth and mapping our rights. Different lines are now drawn around who can vote. But why have lines at all? There’s something dodgy about any government voting on who should have a say in electing them, especially when, as crime has gone down the prison population has gone up.

Should the size and make-up of an electorate really be formed at its margins by sentencing policy, available prison space, police priorities or crime detection rates? If moral worth is the gut issue, do these really provide a sound basis for judgment; any more than amounts handed-back in unpaid tax and public money misclaimed for house-flipping, plasma TVs, or pruning wisteria?

I think not.


Just checked the police map of reported crimes for Thomas More St., Wapping – home of News International – and found just a single vehicle crime in the vicinity; no murders, no burglaries, no er… telephone hacking.

But it’s good to see that the website says:-

‘To protect privacy, crimes are mapped to points on or near the road where they occurred’.

Whether we’re citizens or celebrities, fans or footballers, voters or politicians, we can all sleep easier knowing that the Met takes the protection of our privacy so seriously.