Greasy Pole : Life, death or suicide?
Thanks to New Labour’s trumpeted policy of being “tough on crime” administered by the likes of Jack Straw and David Blunkett (they never actually got around to the other bit about tackling the cause of it all) there are something over 85,000 people in prison in this country (also, they never sorted out whether over-crowded prisons proved that they had succeeded, or failed, to beat crime). At present none of the prisoners is allowed to vote; in any case if they were not banned the fact that they come from homes all over means that the effect would be dispersed between many constituencies and so unlikely to affect any single result. Which has not lessened the interest, not to say at times passion, over whether anyone who has been locked up for offending against some of the accepted norms of property society, by theft or violence, should have a say in how that society is run day-to-day.
The controversy was brought up for wide public discussion by the case of one John Hirst. By no means an easy, attractive man – as a child he was abused after being placed in a Barnardos home and suffers from Asperger’s syndrome – Hirst was sentenced to 15 years in prison for killing his landlady with an axe in what was described as a detached, callous manner. In the event he served 25 years and after release under supervision on licence he personified the campaign to overturn the ban on prisoners voting, on the grounds that it contravened the Human Rights Act, which became law in the UK in 2000. This Act, which was greeted in many a court room with derisive irritation, sprang from a guarantee in the European Convention on Human Rights of “free elections…by secret ballot under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the people in the choice of the legislature”. But it was not all plain sailing thereafter. In April 2001 the High Court in Britain rejected an application for the enfranchisement of prisoners but three years later this decision was itself overturned by the European Court of Human Rights, leading the Council of Europe in December 2009 to question whether the general election due in May 2010 would be illegal. Which did not, of course, prevent that election going ahead even if some of the candidates were subsequently imprisoned for other criminal offences. In February last, the Commons emphatically opted to keep the ban although this flew in the face of the country’s obligations as a signatory to the ECHR and could lead to prisoners suing for damages which might total as much as £160 million.
In terms of legislation the matter goes back to the Forfeiture Act of 1870, which moderated some of the consequences of “civic death” dating back to the 14th century. The present ban was imposed in law in 1983, 1985 and 2000, which placed the UK at variance with most other European countries and in accord with the likes of Armenia, Bulgaria, Estonia and Hungary, so that a government which professes to staunchly respect the rule of law and the sanctity of its treaty obligations has persistently acted in an illegal and cynical way. Some prisoners – and others outside gaol – may have their own opinion about the motivation of those who preach endlessly about “right” and “wrong” but who are ready to apply their own, conveniently flexible, interpretation of these terms. Is this a problem to those who solemnly construct capitalism’s regulations governing property and privilege? For one thing, the possibility of losing the right to vote through being sent to prison is unlikely to have deterred any of those 85,000 from their efforts to improve their lot through the kind of theft or violence which capitalism rules as illegal. For example in the recent elections in the Irish Republic only 191 prisoners out of a total of 4,500 registered for a vote. So the ruling class can be reassured; from casual contact with some inmates of those grim monuments to futile punishment it is unlikely that if they had the vote they would use it in the only constructive possible way; rather, after their own fashion they will support at the ballot box the whole society of class denial and exploitation – on the assumption that they can so re-arrange things as to be the exploiters.
Cameron Is Ill
David Cameron has said that the very idea of prisoners being allowed to join the millions of misled, prejudiced, unthinking voters makes him “physically ill”. It is difficult to believe that someone who has so ruthlessly scaled the greasy pole is so delicate. Is he not propelled into nausea at the evidence of capitalism’s desolation? Famously reputed to be an affectionate family man, was he not repelled when Save the Children reported that 1.6 million children in the country he rules over are living in extreme poverty? Does he suffer sleepless nights when he hears of yet another incident of children being slaughtered under the guns and missiles in Afghanistan? Are his digestive processes affected when he is informed of the effect of his government’s policies on benefits for the frail and elderly who, no longer a viable employment prospect, look on their future with fear? So what is the scale of the matter? Before it recently emerged into the news through the processes of the law, there was no apparent awareness of it among the electorate at large. It was not an issue during that last election. The entire dispute in this case is another irrelevance when the urgent need is to end a society under the rule of the likes of Cameron and his lies. To end, in other words, this present situation where those who can vote do so as a kind of civic suicide.