Tuesday, 9 November 2010


I've been getting very annoyed recently. (Shocker). About prisoners voting specifically. Or rather, not about that, I've not been annoyed at all by that, I've been annoyed by the way it's been discussed in public. And I'd like to explain now why everyone other than me is crazy and irrational.

First, the issue at hand. A complex and detailed European court of human rights decision has concluded that in the case of John Hirst being denied the right to vote whilst in prison:

1. Holds by twelve votes to five that there has been a violation of Article 3 of Protocol No. 1;

Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 of the European Convention on Human rights says:

The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.

This, says the court, has been violated in the case of John Hirst, and the state must pay him compensation.

It's for minds better trained in international law than I to say exactly what this requires the government to do. But that's not the issue I want to talk about. I want to talk about the way this has been handled in public.

New rule: Ad Hom is not becoming of politicans.

I know you dont like John Hirst. I dont like him either, I've only encountered him very briefly and find him personally unpleasant. That doesn't stop him being absolutely and totally right on this issue. Simply pointing out that he's killed someone, or that you dont like him for a variety of other reasons, is not an argument, and it's unbecoming of senior and well respected politicians to sink to this kind of childishness.

New Rule: I know you dont like murderers

Strangely enough, I'm also an animal evolved in a social situation. I find murderers dangerous just like you do. I find paedophiles dangerous just like every other category of rapist. I know you dont like bad people. ... That hasn't addressed the issue though.

In fact, this applies to pretty much all debates about law and order. Simply stand up and talk about murder or rape and you win the argument by default. It's crazy. There aren't two groups of people, those who like murder and those who dont. There are people with different ideas about how society should react to them and prevent them and what should be done about everything else in that context.

Simply saying that you dont like murderers does not mean they shouldn't get the vote. I dont like people who are stupid or whose eyes are too close together, doesn't mean I get to stop them voting. For that matter I dont like social conservatives, doesn't stop me defending their right to vote for their bizarre and antiquated ideas.

New rule: stop saying rights and responsibilities as if that's an argument

Unless you've got a fairly well articulated concept of what rights are and what they derive from (like I dont) you can be fairly confident that any argument along the lines of rights require responsibilities will at least not be obvious to those around you. Does any breach of responsibility to others require a total removal of all rights, right to life included? People who commit a crime have interfered in the rights of others, so we should take away their rights runs the argument. So we should have an automatic death penalty for all crimes? 'Cause I'm not sure you want to argue that. And if you dont want to argue that I suggest you think of a really good argument why the right to vote is the sort of thing that can be taken away whilst the right to oxygen isn't.

Simply appealing to the concept of right is something that liberals (myself included) are very guilty of. If you've got a well worked out concept of what a right is and how they come into existence that's great. But simply asserting a right as absolute and arguing from there can be as unhelpful as simply asserting your own view and leaving it as that. Sometimes a right is a good starting point for a debate, sometimes two people can argue past eachother by taking different concepts of rights as their foundation.

New Rule: Stop saying it's European like that's a bad thing

This ruling comes from the European Court of Human Rights. A body who I like, they have produced some very sensible decisions. But, even if they produced bad decisions that doesn't change my point. The relationship between states and the EU and the ECHR is one that can be debated, should anything other than the state control law, what power does the rest of Europe have to dictate to one nation etc etc. The problem is these discussions are irrelevant. This is one case, if the UK wishes it can simply ignore it, pull out of the jurisdiction of the ECHR and continue doing what it wants. We are not being dominated by a foreign oppressor. This decision is not being forced onto us at the point of a gun. So we shouldn't argue that because it's European it's bad.

Something having originated in Europe is not per se an argument as to why it's bad. Good decisions come out of the ECHR so do bad ones, argue about the decision not about the source.

New Rule: actually understand why rights exist before taking them away from someone

Why do we vote? What's the point of it? Nowhere is it carved in stone that everyone shall vote. No divine proclamation declared it so. People fought for democracy not as an abstraction as the rhetoric would have you believe, but for sound practical reasons. What are these reasons, why do we let people decide on the government?

The central reason for democracy and voting is an old saying I've found attributed to everyone from Plato to various Russian playwrights. "He who wears the shoe knows best where it pinches." The only people who really know what society wants are the individuals who make it up. If you want to help people out you have to first ask what it is they want help with. The argument is that all people should be part of the conversation of the nation. That it should be exactly those affected by laws whose opinions should be canvassed in producing it.

The second argument behind democracy is that of tyranny. Suppose some government wished to be tyrannical and impose itself on an unwilling nation. There's only so long you can do this in a democracy. It's very easy to fool most people some of the time, but very hard to fool most people for a long time. After a while the excuse de jour for your regime lacks legitimacy and gets voted out.

Now let us consider prisoners voting given that these are the reasons why anyone votes. Do they still apply? Well, yes. People in prison are affected by the state in the most perfect and total way of anyone at all. They have far more interest in what the state does. And even if we look at areas beyond prison policy, most prisoners will not die in prison, and so have a very real interest in schools and hospitals. On the second count of overthrowing governments before they become tyrannical, surely prisoners should be given more of a vote than everyone else? They are far far more likely to notice tyranny when it happens as they are, by definition almost, on the receiving end of it. So looked at almost any way you like, prisoners should be allowed to vote for exactly the same reason everyone else should. They're people, they have opinions.

New Rule: Dont assume lawmakers are a stupid as you are

One of the most common arguments is that this would seriously effect the constituencies where the largest prisons are located as there would be a sudden influx of new people in a small area. This is a really convincing argument if you assume that lawmakers are brain-dead and haven't thought of this. Now, assuming lawmakers are incompetent is often wise, but to base a whole argument on this assertion is daft. As it happens there has already been an announcement that someone with more than 3 braincells has sat down for 30 seconds and realised this, and said that prisoners will cast votes in the constituency they last lived, thus getting rid of the problem.

Now it's quite right to point this out as it's an important point to add to the bill. However one should not argue that "I've thought of a superficial and easy-to-solve problem with this plan, and thus the whole plan is wrong". Point out the superficial problem, tell people how to solve it. If they dont do this then you've got a problem. But dont assume that simple problems are insurmountable, or that they challenge the principle of the thing.

Actually, while we're at it. The same damned argument applies to another story that got me annoyed. Do you remember a while back Professor Nutt et al said that alcohol was one of the most dangerous drugs? I seem to recall that the only argument I heard about the fact of the case was "alcohol is more common, so if you look at overall damage it will be more". Yes, well done, you've spotted something so blindingly obvious that anyone who didn't spot it really needs to get their head examined. And you know what? Prof Nutt also spotted it, turns out that a professor has more than one functioning brain cell. And he conducted his study not on total harms, but on the harm caused by the drug on a per user basis. Which is obvious if you think about it for 30 seconds. So why not ask if he did the obvious thing find out and move on rather than assuming he's an idiot who hasn't noticed more people drink than take LSD.

New Rule: Make sure your exceptions are exceptional

So we've got a bit sophisticated now, we're resigned to not banning someone from voting just for being in prison. So we now want to horse trade about the exceptions. We will defiantly ban murderers and paedophiles. Why? Because I hate them and they're disgusting. So are bigots, so are BNP voters, so are proponents of sharia law, we still let them vote.

If you're going to admit an exception to a general principle it cannot be based on "I really dont like those guys", it has to be based on "the general reasoning does not apply in this case" or on "there is some reason that is more important than the general case why this should happen". So for someone to be banned from voting they need to be exceptional either because they dont fit the reasoning. (It can be argued that people on life sentences are an exception as they will never experience the policies of the state in the outside world so have no interest in it, I dont agree but it's a reasonable argument). Or because there is some other reason to exclude them. In this category falls quite clearly the insane and children and those who have committed electoral fraud, the first because someone insane or a child is someone the state believes incapable of understanding and protecting their own interest, the second to reduce the risk that the fraud will be repeated. Now exceptions in these four cases can be argued for clearly and consistently, what cannot be argued for is a blanket ban on people we dont like. Because people you dont like are people too.


Give prisoners the vote, there's no sane reason not to. The way the debate has been conducted in public is mad, full of irrelevant hatred and irrational arguments which are a disgrace to their speakers.

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