Should prisoners be given the vote?

In recent weeks the debate over prisoners' right to vote has suddenly reemerged, almost as if from nowhere. It transpires that the coalition is now set to introduce the franchise to those currently residing at her majesty's pleasure, a surprise move which almost certainly will not tally with many of David Cameron's core Conservative supporters. So why bother, and why now?

It transpires that ever since a 2005 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights first the Labour government at the time and now the Con-Dem alliance had been trying its hardest to stay the issue. That there appears to be little political mileage to be gained for such a move - there has certainly not been any real perceivable public demand for prisoner voting rights - might well have something to do with it. Indeed, given Cameron's problems with the Eurosceptic wing of his party - Lisbon referendum, anyone? - this announcement couldn't have come at a worse time.

The arguments for and against prisoner votes are fairly simple; those that are against suggest that by breaking the law convicts have renounced their civil right to have their say in how the country is governed, whilst those in favour argue that this very process dehumanises those behind bars and renders them personae non gratae. There are also concerns that those areas with large prison populations may find their newly-enfranchised residents holding considerable political clout at the local level.

Whilst the UK is not alone in Europe in denying prisoners the vote, many other countries do albeit with varying restrictions. There is certainly no blanket right to the ballot box for all felons and those opposed to this measure may find heart in the fact this will certainly be the case here.

Ultimately, the question revolves around what a person must be deprived of when they are sent to prison. Liberty is the most obvious; incarceration provides the ultimate restriction on freedom of movement and prevents prisoners from doing many of the things that most of us take for granted. But by suggesting that the right to have a say on how a country is run is dependent on good behaviour is, I think, perhaps a step too far. It's a good thing that this issue has been forced; it's just a shame that it's taken five years of dallying after a European Court judgement to get us there.


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