Garry Lee looks at David Cameron’s tactical approach to the vote on prisoners’ voting rights and what he stands to gain from it.
The free vote on prisoners voting rights in Westminster, as promised by David Cameron produced a very predictable result: 234 against, and 22 for. Is it foolish to have expected anything else?
I fully believe that David Cameron intends to comply with the European Court of Human Rights ruling to give a number of prisoners the right to vote, but not without a bit of ideological kicking and screaming, and certainly not without a tactical ploy that contributes to his wider objective of limiting the influence of the European Union on Britain. Cameron’s “sensible and pragmatic” approach to his dealings with Europe, which he spoke of to The Telegraph in June of 2010, shows that he is open to dealing with the European Union despite his own Euroscepticism. He said in that same interview, “there are things we can do at the European level that are in Britain’s interest”, or in this case, in the interest of his party.
While I do not count myself among the Prime Minister’s many admirers, I do have to admit that from a tactical perspective, he has dealt with the issue of prisoners voting rights very well indeed. His use of the ‘free vote’ on this issue rather than a traditional Commons vote allowed him to shield himself against any accusations that the rejection of allowing inmates the right to vote was an ideological or partisan decision. Since the vote went the way he would have expected it to, with an overwhelming majority of MPs voting against, and since these MPs are obviously democratically elected officials, he has the ability to speak of the decision as one that cuts across the borders of parties, and one that was made by an elected chamber of representatives of the country. If the European Court of Human Rights enforces the decision upon the government, it allows Cameron another opportunity to frame the issue as an infringement on British values, and as yet another example of why we shouldn’t be part of the European Union.
If you are of the opinion that inmates do not deserve the right to vote, look at all of the members and sections of society that retain their right to vote in spite of unpopular actions. An example likely to resonate with the general public would be the bankers that decided to award their employees large, unnecessary bonuses after being saved by government bailouts. Another example is the racist and loutish English Defence League that have used violence and damaged police property in their spread of hatred of Islam in Britain, these people have most certainly retained their right to vote. What about the lady that shocked the world by putting a cat in the bin? This of course must be considered as the light-hearted example of the three, but it goes to show that a wide spectrum of the members of our society have held onto their right to vote in spite of a perceived lack of merit from the general public. I am not for a second saying that all of these groups of people deserve to be stripped of their right to vote, but doesn’t it seem difficult to justify keeping the vote away from prisoners who are paying for their crimes when there are people in our towns and cities that continue to act in violent, racist and in unjust ways who still retain their civil rights? As you can probably tell, I am so far unconvinced that a convincing argument for denying prisoners the right to vote exists. For the time being, it seems that the loss from a human rights perspective is Cameron’s gain.
David Cameron’s actions leading up to the debate have shown that he has found a loophole that will allow him to exploit any European decision that is likely to be unpopular with the British public, and moreover, has shown that he possesses the ability to frame these decisions in a way that allows him to gain from them. Love him or hate him; that is a talent to be admired, and simultaneously for his opponents; feared.