Friday, March 19, 2010

2010 Election special: Non-Voting

In Part 1 of our Pre-Election guide, Neil Robertson explains why not voting is "a small protest against a big injustice".

As a voter who's long felt left behind by Labour, who's unimpressed by the wet flannel liberalism of Nick Clegg and who remains underwhelmed by parties on the electoral fringe, this election has often felt like a choice between "the lesser of who cares?".

For me, the prospect of voting this May - a task I might have once grasped with enthusiasm - seems like a tawdry chore, with each party appearing like a cheap imitation of my own values.

Still, after a good few months of dismayed dithering and yawning, I finally came to a decision about how I'm going to vote in this election:

I won't.

Here's the thing: 6 years ago a British prisoner called John Hirst went to the European Court of Human Rights demanding that our government give him and his fellow inmates the right to vote. The court ruled that our blanket ban violated the Human Rights Act, and ordered the government to make the necessary changes.

Naturally, the government has deliberately dragged its feet ever since; issuing objections and obfuscations at every turn, and getting no closer to changing the law than the establishment of some weak-willed 'consulation exercises'.

This was fine for the first five years, but now the election has brought the matter into sharp relief. After ignoring repeated warnings that the General Election must not take place without the ban being lifted, in December the Council of Europe suggested that the election may breach the European convention on human rights. The council repeated that claim last week, along with the notice that, unless the law is changed, tens of thousands of prisoners would be within their rights to sue the British government.

As it stands, the coming election promises to be the first in modern history where tens of thousands of British citizens have illegaly barred from casting a ballot. Whatever crimes these men & women may have committed, however dubious their character, can we really claim to be tough on those who break the law when we are happy for the state to break its own laws in order to punish them?

For me, the answer is an unequivocal 'no'. I cannot, in good conscience, exercise my legally-guaranteed right to participate in the democratic process when tens of thousands of Britons are illegally deprived of theirs. For that reason, I will be staying at home come election day. Not out of apathy, nor out of a lack of available alternatives, but as a small protest against a big injustice.

Neil Robertson blogs at The Bleeding Heart Show.

[Tomorrow: the Pirate Party, by Aaron Murin-Heath].


jailhouselawyer said...

I too am thinking of not voting because all 3 major parties have conspired to keep this issue out of the media until after the next general election.

The cost to the taxpayers for the compensation claims are likely to exceed £70M!

If the government gave prisoners the vote, it would cost nothing!

John Hirst (Prisoners Votes Case)

Stan Moss said...

With all the respect for this position, which is laudable, theoretically, the non-voting stance is guilty of self-indulgence.

Look no further than the 2000 US elections. A combination of the Nader vote and forswearing liberal purists (whose souls were too pure to be smeared with a vote) handed the planet 8 long years of the lovely George W Bush.

Or in 2001. 40% of the British electorate decided to stay at home. What possible good did that do? Do you really think that Tony Blair turned to Cherie and said "Oh crickey, my darling. What a ghastly turnout. I am so perplexed. Jolly good though. I may have to recalibrate my policies".

Look past the single issues and keep an eye on the bigger picture instead. Leave aside grand moral dilemmas for a minute and remember this: the moment you decide to wash your hands of it then you won't be entitled to say a single bad thing against whichever future government.

Your non-vote will be instrumental to their victory.

jailhouselawyer said...

Stan: "In 2006, the Irish Government introduced legislation to allow prisoners to vote...During the debates in the Oireachtas (Irish Houses
of Parliament), reference was made to the Hirst judgment in the ECtHR and to the situation
in the United States. One Parliamentarian encouraged his fellow lawmakers to
‘ remember the 2000 presidential election and the actions of George Bush’s brother in
Florida … . He had many people working for him to disenfranchise all the people who
had a previous conviction. It gave a terrible picture of a democracy .... They were pursued
to get them off the electoral register because of their race and political situation ’
(Fergus O’Dowd, Dáil Debates, 2006, Vol. 624, col. 1987)" (Behan & O'Donnell, Prisoners, Politics and the Polls, BRIT. J. CRIMINOL. (2008) 48, 319–336).

socialist sam said...

I believe in the importance of voting. Even if turnout was very low, what exactly would you achieve?

Perhaps a couple of opinion columns in the papers, but before you know, the elected MPs will be ready to sit.

How about instead forming a single-issue party on prisoners' right to vote?

Non-voting is such a waste, and you've got to remember that, even if they noticed, to the general public a low turnout would come across as a combination of rampant apathy and muddled thinking.

jailhouselawyer said...

Socialist Sam: That suggestion get a thumbs down from Wikipedia.

"One weakness of such an approach is that effective political parties are usually coalitions of factions or advocacy groups. Bringing together political forces based on a single intellectual or cultural common denominator can be unrealistic; though there may be considerable public opinion on one side of an argument, it does not necessarily follow that mobilizing under that one banner will bring results. A defining issue may indeed come to dominate one particular electoral campaign, sufficiently to swing the result. Imposing such an issue may well be what single-issue politics concern; but for the most part success is rather limited, and electorates choose governments for reasons with a broader base".

Single issue politics

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

I can't buy into a no vote stance at all, it doesn't sit well with me, perhaps on principle and it feels like we are handing over even more power to those that already have it via our apathy and/or indignation.

Excellent start to the series though.

the patriot said...

Jailhouse Rock: those prisoners gave up their right to vote the moment they decided to sniff the wrong side of the law. So let's deff the poppicock and focus on real predicaments.

jailhouselawyer said...

Patriot: Did you not read Neil's:

"Whatever crimes these men & women may have committed, however dubious their character, can we really claim to be tough on those who break the law when we are happy for the state to break its own laws"?

It's very patriotic my country right or wrong. It's also very hypocritical for the people inflicting the punishment to be lawbreakers themselves.

Stan Moss said...

ignore "the patriot". he's a far-right troll and he's just on a quest to make people laugh here.

To the point, I get what you're trying to say, but you haven't convinced me.

Please answer this question for me: do you really think that by not voting the country would suddenly gain conscience of the prisoners' vote issue?

Or is it just gonna be more headlines about rising apathy?

Be honest.

jailhouselawyer said...

Stan: It might surprise you, but I am always honest.

It's a protest vote, or to be more precise, a no vote protest. I was emailed the link, and the subject read "This should please you", indeed it does. And the text said "A blog entry to warm the cockles of your heart...", indeed it does.

Neil is raising awareness of what I call the elephant in the room (ie, in the House of Commons). Bob Piper has linked to it, and it is also posted at Liberal Conspiracy where it has so far had loads of comments. I emailed it to Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners, and they loved it and I think they will publish it. Being an unpopular group, prisoners do not get a lot of support.

I also emailed it to the Prison Reform Trust, who liked it, and am hoping that they will publicise it further with a press release.

Given that Labour's tactic, according to Total Politics, is to keep the Prisoners Votes Case out of the media until after the general election, Neil has done the cause good and not harm. That's a plus.

If this had slipped under the radar, and Neil didn't vote, his one vote being lost would have just been added to the voter apathy total. It could prick the consciences of MPs. Many of them really are not now in the holier than thou bracket, because of the expenses scandal. The government's argument was that prisoners had lost the moral authority to vote because of their offences. However, the former Archbishop of Canterbury stated that Parliament has lost the moral to govern.

I can understand voter apathy. But, the politicians have only themselves to blame. In China there is only one party, its got like that here with their policies, and corruption.

I do think that some good might come of this stance taken by Neil.

Idle Pen Pusher said...

This sounds disgraceful and shabby. We need a bill barring convicts from voting immediately, otherwise they should be given a vote.