28 June 2013

Political thumbscrews

Yesterday, Holyrood passed the Scottish Independence Referendum (Franchise) Act.

Political younglings have cause for celebration. Sixteen and seventeen year olds will be enfranchised. Lags young and old, by contrast, will have been popping no corks last night. Nicola Sturgeon's steady resolution to reject emancipating prisoners held - predictably - to the last.  After a brief flurry of debate, Holyrood rejected four amendments which would have seen at least some prisoners able to vote on polling day in Autumn 2014, ranging from those in prison for four years, to the less ambitious extension of the franchise to those sentenced to six months or less. My own views on this matter have been well-aired here, and need not be revisited.

One detail which did catch my eye in yesterday's debate, however, was the political thumbscrew operations behind the scenes which it disclosed. Of the eight MSPs who supported emancipating some folk in jail, we had Margo MacDonald the two Green MSPs, three Liberal Democrats (their two islander MSPs, Tavish Scott and Liam McArthur being absent), and Jean Urquhart and John Finnie - the two former SNP MSPs who resigned from the party after the NATO debate.  No serving Nationalists joined them. Breathing the free, if chilly, air of independency, perhaps?

Across the chamber, we might have expected at least a couple of Labour MSPs to wobble towards supporting the amendments lodged by Patrick Harvie and the Liberal Democrats.  At stage one of the Bill back in May, both Graeme Pearson and Helen Eadie unexpectedly made sympathetic noises.  Eadie said:

 "This is an opportunity to develop a distinctive alternative to the existing UK blanket ban on convicted prisoners voting in elections. That course could bring us closer to the practice in other European democracies such as Denmark, Finland, Ireland, France, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland. The commission recommend ed that the Scottish Parliament should have a debate on whether all prisoners should be banned from voting in the referendum, as expressed in the bill. The commission proposed that that section of the bill be revised adequately to reflect the values that a re placed in Scotland on human rights, social justice and the effective rehabilitation of offenders. The countries in which all convicted prisoners serving prison sentences are disenfranchised are the UK, Armenia, Bulgaria — much as I love Bulgaria, it is wrong in that regard — Estonia, Georgia, Hungary and Russia.
The commission’s key point is based on reasonable and objective justifications, such as the type of crime that was committed or the length of the sentence. It does not propose that every prisoner be given the right to vote. We know that there are many women in Cornton Vale and other prisons who are there for not paying bills. Is it reasonable to disenfranchise a woman who is in prison for not having paid her TV licence or parking fines? I do not think so. However, I would ban serious, violent criminals from having the right to vote. We must distinguish what we are talking about here, and the matter is worthy of a lengthier debate." 

Even more explicitly, Labour MSP Graeme Pearson, a former senior police officer, endorsed the idea of at least some prisoners voting.

"The cabinet secretary indicated in her speech that she believes that she could survive a legal challenge relating to extending the franchise to people who are serving custodial sentences. I would have hoped and expected that she would want to do the right and just thing, and not solely what she can get away with in respect of the ECHR. During my police service, I dealt with countless prisoners, who were in custody for a huge variety of crimes, and my experiences have led me to the view that those who are in prison should not be subjected to a blanket ban on participation in the electoral system. It was mentioned earlier that Scotland is part of a very small group of European countries — the group includes Armenia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Liechtenstein and Russia — that impose such restrictions.
It seems strange to me that the line that we use to determine the franchise is a custodial sentence, no matter whether the person is spending weeks in prison for shoplifting or something similar, or a life sentence for murder. I therefore believe that prisoners who are serving short sentences for less serious offences — we can debate and determine the exact nature and length of those sentences should be allowed to participate in all elections in Scotland. I also believe that, once they are granted a vote, individual prisoners should be made responsible for registering to vote and for arranging for their vote to be submitted, and that it should not be left to the prison authorities to do that on their behalf."

So where were Eadie and Pearson on the day? You guessed it. With all their Labour colleagues, opposing amendments which would have achieved the policy Pearson was ready to endorse a few weeks ago. Johann's clearly had the political thumbscrews out, and grinding, in the Labour caucus. 

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