5 November 2010

Prisoner votes: A constituency of hard knocks?

When I was a student in Edinburgh, now and then a degreeless undergraduate Tory Boy, typically affecting the garb and manner of Mr Toad, would leap from his lilly-pad to scoff about what a spiffing idea it would be to reintroduce university constituencies. A form of plural voting, for years graduates of ancient universities were granted a double franchise and a pair of votes to cast, one through ordinary entitlements, another by dint of their degrees. Oxford and Cambridge boasted two university MPs apiece between 1603 and 1950, while between 1868 and 1918, Edinburgh teamed up with St Andrews to return an MP, Glasgow and Aberdeen lending the House of Commons another. After 1918, a single Combined Scottish Universities constituency was formed which sent no less than three parliamentarians down to London to represent the interests of their fellow MAs. After agitation for electoral reform, the university constituencies were finally abolished by the 1948 Representation of the People Act, the last  graduates' MP leaving with the Westminster General Election of 1950. Our Tory Boy, petit-bourgeois, gauche and defensive, thought this was a grand and witty sally, while his cronies from the mire croaked their approval. It was rather like watching the unholy genesis of Michael Forsyth. But I digress...

I wanted to discuss a couple of things on the outcry-provoking/scandalous/welcome (delete as preferred) decision to afford those in prison the right to vote in elections. As the Heresiarch has noted, in a piece in which he rummages through the European Court's jurisprudence for ways of avoiding granting the vote to all those imprisoned...

"The government's apparently reluctant surrender to the European Court of Human Rights on the issue of voting rights for prisoners has led to the usual unhelpful debate. Most noticeable has been the tangling together of two quite separate issues - whether or not giving votes to prisoners is a Good Thing, and whether or not the European Court of Human Rights (not, in this instance, the EU) has or should have the jurisdiction to impose its view on a supposedly sovereign Parliament. As is often the case, how one answers the first question tends to influence one's view of the latter; but they really are entirely distinct."

On this front, it may be of interest to note, as Love and Garbage reminded me yesterday, that the Scottish Registration Appeal Court decided as early as 2007, in the case of William Smith (Ap) v. K D Scott, Electoral Registration Officer, that to refuse to register a prisoner on the electoral roll was incompatible with the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights in Hirst (No. 2) v. United Kingdom.

Haunted by the hog's haunch phizog of this buttery Tory Boy, when the UK Government's decision filtered out I jestingly suggested that we should revive the style of university constituencies to cater for the electoral rights of our imprisoned fellow citizens. Folk seem particularly agitated by the idea that a massive concentration of incarcerated persons might be able to radically alter results in individual constituencies. How else could it work? Postal votes in prisoner's "home" seat? But what about the folk without settled residence, or who have been inside for so long they no longer have any strong connection to any other seat? That set my mind whirring and I pondered how plausible my daft suggestion for a prisoners' constituency might be.  After all, the "problem" can be defined in terms of (a) the lack of meaningful civic and political attachment to the prison's geographic constituency and (b) a dispersed population of prisoners who need to be connected in some practical way to conventional networks of communication which make our mass democracy possible. Surely the obvious off-piste solution is to borrow the university constituency model which operated without heed to geography, if the numbers stack up. I took a closer look.

Constituency sizes vary significantly across the country, but at present, 650 Westminster MPs represent constituencies numbering roughly 69,500 apiece, varying across the UK from 71,000 electors in England, 66,000 in Scotland, 56,500 in Wales and just over 63,000 in Northern Ireland.  Orkney and Shetland's electorate numbers a wee 32,181. Driven by Tory manifesto commitments to reduce the cost of politics, Westminster is currently considering reducing the number of House of Commons seats to 600 and as far as possible, equalising populations voting in each constituency to around 77,000. According to the latest prison population bulletin issued by the Ministry of Justice, on the 5th November 2010 English and Welsh jails held 85,269 people, 81,039 men and 4,230 women. Add the Scottish Prison Service's numbers to that - numbering around 8,000 - and you get to over 93,000 prison voters. Perhaps the newly enfranchised constituency could be split in two - sending two penal establishment MPs to Westminster. Or, as an incentive to politicians to the end purposeless imposition of short sentences, why not work towards lowering the prison population to the 77,000 cap proposed for other constituencies? Wise prison policy, as well as equalising and representative. Naturally, this expedient prompts some nationalistic qualms on my part, but consider the sociological interest of the arrangement! How the devil would they vote? Who would stand? Who would win? What sort of turnouts would the constituency secure, with nowt much else to do? Think of the hustings! Why be dull? Why not open up new and eccentric spaces in our democracy? BBC election nights could only be improved by the innovation...

Dimbleby: "I'm sorry to interrupt you there Mr Hague but now - Now, yes, I think we can have a result from Penal Constituencies, North..."

Returning Officer: "As the acting returning officer for HMP Barlinne, Shotts and Greenock, I hereby declare the votes cast as follows ... Tommy Sheridan..."


  1. I had written a rather long reply to this which vanished after I hit post and was presented with a "server not found" message, as it is late and I would like to go to bed I shall summarise a bit this time around.

    I have nothing against prisoners voting, the purpose of prisons as I understand it, is to rehabilitate those who have the capacity and the will to be rehabilitated, and to keep those who don't away from us. Prisons do not have a punitive role beyond that.

    The figure of how many people are in the prison population may include those who would still be disbarred from voting for other reasons, such as young offenders, foreign nationals and residents of Carstairs and its English equivalent.

    The constituency would be simualtaenously English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish, so would parties like the SNP, Plaid, The Irish and English Democrats, who seek only to represent one country contest it? If they didn't would that damage SNP claims to stand in every seat in Scotland etc? How would such a seat affect English votes for English laws if (when?)ever introduced?

    Given the unsavoury nature of some of the prisoners, is it possible that the Penal constituency would return the first BNP MP?

    If a prisoner can vote can they also stand? Would the prison system grant the person licence to go to parliament each week?

    How would something like this work in the devolved areas? 8,000 prisoners is not enough to merit an MSP and Barlinnie isn't big enough to merit a councillor. If there was a Penal MSP how would that affect the list system?

    Do prisoners have voting rights right now within prison? If they are allowed to opine on health, education, defence et al perhaps they should have something akin to a resident's association that can help decide the menu each week, or which books the prison library order in.

  2. Gah! Apologies, Fr McKenzie. Seems I've not been able to banish the capering band of comment thieves, unfortunately. I'm blaming blogger for rank instability.

    On your substantive points - my suggestion above should definitely be read more than half-ironically. When all or some prisoners are afforded the vote, I firmly anticipate far more conventional mechanisms are used.

    In the large pile of reasons why this wheeze isn't going to compel Cammy and Clegg, devolution is particularly problematic. At least for the tickling idea that we could have a single Penal Establishments MP. I neglected to mention Northern Ireland, whose prison population - off the top of my head - adds another 1,000 or so, separately organised.

    In Scottish terms, of course, it is only the constituency votes which would pose an issue. Second, regional votes dissolve in a wider pot more unproblematically. The Scottish numbers don't add up, even on a silly calculation, to justify a single "penal MSP". For that reason, we might expect that an extra few hundred or so prisoners joining constituencies may seem less "problematic".

  3. I also do not see any reason why prisoners should not be able to vote but I think it is a non-starter to include prisoners on the electoral register in the constituency where the prison is. Rather, they should be allowed to apply for a postal vote in the constituency in which they are already on the electoral register.

    If they are not already on the electoral register - and, given the chaotic lifestyles of many prisoners, the chances are many of them are not - they couldn't vote anyway.

  4. Considering how comparatively regularly one updates one's presence on the electoral roll, that may be rather problematic Indy. Take the obvious example of the long-term prisoner who has already served out a decade or so in jail. Say he has no continuing domicile in the community. He wants to register to vote. If his prison mates get the chance to vote, it hardly seems fair to deprive him of the chance, simply because his wife as fled the country, was a single child, parents departed and incapable of having kids.

  5. In cases like that I would think they could be added to the roll as absent voters - much like overseas voters.

  6. 2What sort of turnouts would the constituency secure, with nowt much else to do?"

    An article in the redoubtable Sunday Post a few weeks ago suggested that interest among the prisoners themselves for voting was miniscule until there was a sniff of compo in the air...

  7. Precisely Stuart - think of it as a new eccentric space in our democracy whose unrealised potential might be realised at some point in the future, even if the current generation of prisoners is listless and underwhelmed...

  8. There are already a number of MPs who would welcome this move. It would mean the holding of a criminal record or the threat of initiating one would no longer be a bar to standing as a candidate or holding office.

    Now some might argue, since we already adopt an apathetic attitude to the competence, integrity and moral fibre of our representatives that such a move would only be defining the parameters; but for me it would be a licence for the political power psychotics to carry out a crime in order to secure for themselves a safer seat.

    Of course there would have to be a large degree of incompetence in the action they adopt, to ensure they're caught and convicted, but given the general standards of politics that shouldn't prove too difficult.

  9. C&RAP,

    Excellent cynicism. I should say, even if some brave Tory-Dem reformer did seize this penal constituency idea, there's no reason per se that prisoners should be able to stand, even if they could vote. To the best of my knowledge, there is no jurisprudence of the European Court on that point. Not yet anyway...