There’s nothing democratic about ‘votes for prisoners’

Last week, I was invited to speak at an event in Glasgow discussing whether prisoners should have the vote or not. The debate stems from a European ruling that prisoners in the UK, regardless of what parliament decides, should be given the vote.

To my left was a lawyer who argued with great passion that the extension of the franchise to prisoners was a right that could and should not be denied.

My basic argument was that prisoners are not citizens as such and should therefore not receive the vote. Interestingly, like other extensions of the vote - for example, the granting of the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds for the Scottish independence referendum next year - the demand for the vote has not come from the people in these affected groups. Prisoners are not campaigning for this en masse. Indeed, as one prison officer present at the debate noted, in his experience the kind of people who end up as prisoners would not vote anyway, even if they were not behind bars.

The demand for the extension of the vote in these cases comes from the legal, professional and political elites.

On top of this, the patronising approach to prisoners voting - it will empower the vulnerable - reflects the elitist and therapeutic way extending the vote is being proposed and defended today.

Challenged with the idea that perhaps he should set up a political campaign to get the vote extended, the lawyer I was debating replied that he did not want the electorate to vote on this issue because this would simply mean an enforcing of the ‘tyranny of the majority’. If left unchecked, he argued, this tyranny would mean society was worse off; indeed prisoners would be treated in a barbaric fashion if the electorate had their way.

Whether he is right or wrong about the electorate is open to debate. What is not open to debate is the anti-democratic nature of this outlook. If we follow the logic of votes-for-prisoners campaigners, there is no sense in extending the vote to prisoners as they then simply become part of this tyrannical majority. Once they got the chance to vote, prisoners would become part of the majority that needs to be kept in check by right-thinking lawyers.

In the end one can only conclude that the lawyer I was debating feels comfortable standing up for prisoners only when they can be classified as ‘vulnerable’ or victims who are having their rights denied. Once they become citizens with the power to vote and influence policy, they necessarily become a problem. It is not the belief in democracy that drives these legal experts, but their own belief in their legal and moral right to determine what is right and wrong in society.

Stuart Waiton is a sociology and criminology lecturer at Abertay University in Dundee. He is the author of Snobs Law: Criminalising Football Fans in an Age of Intolerance. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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