Saturday, November 6, 2010

Why Barlinnie still won't be a stop on the campaign trail

I just want to return briefly to the plans to give (some) prisoners the vote, and address a couple of the most fatuous arguments that have been doing the rounds about why it couldn't possibly work...

1) It would distort the result of elections in constituencies with prisons.

As with so many other aspects of this issue, it appears that those determined to be outraged have simply stuck their fingers in their ears whenever an explanation has been given of how the new rules are likely to work in practice. The government made clear from day one that they would be looking to register people to vote in the place they were last resident before being sent to prison. It's not as if there's anything complicated or ground-breaking about such a system - that's exactly how it already works for ex-pat voters. Thus the (very small) "convict vote" will be diluted to the point of virtual meaninglessness across all the constituencies of the UK.

2) Politicians would have to go to prisons to canvass for inmates' votes.

This is the most laughable one of all. Since when has simply having the vote ensured that any particular group has to be listened to? Are politicians interested in the underclass simply because they have the vote? Or in 18-year-olds? Or in singletons who enjoy lie-ins and daytime TV? No, they're interested in middle England, older people and the fabled "hard-working families" respectively. What matters is not whether a particular group has the vote, but how strong they are in numbers, how likely they are to turn out to vote (hence the greater attentiveness to people in older age ranges) and above all else how 'worthy' they appear to the electorate at large - politicians might know perfectly well that the votes of people on benefits are numerous and valuable, but it would still be suicidal to be seen to be actively chasing them.

So, bearing all that in mind, what are we looking at with prisoners? A group that is weak in numbers (less than 0.2% of the population), that will probably not be highly motivated to use the right to vote, and that is the absolute antithesis of "decent, hard-working families" in the public mind. That does not strike me as a recipe for regular campaigning stops to Barlinnie.

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