Could prisoners make all the difference?
What impact the proposed changes to the franchise?
Other than the mooted proposals last year about lowering the voting age to 16, there are very few modifications that can be made to the electoral franchise that could have a major effect. Voting in General Elections is already open to resident members of Ireland and the Commonwealth, and Britons overseas (including those in foreign gaols). Short of allowing all other resident EU citizens to vote in General Elections (they already may in Local, Devolved, and European elections), the largest group excluded from voting are the residents of the UK’s 139 prisons.
This week, Jack Straw announced that the Government would introduce legislation removing some of the restrictions on prisoners in the UK from being allowed to vote. The European Court five years ago held that a blanket ban on prisoners voting was illegal, and the government is being forced to address this ruling by opening up the franchise to at least a portion of the 80,000 or so felons currently serving time at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. It may be that only those with sentences of less than four years are granted suffrage, though the proposals are not yet defined.
It strikes me that such a significant enfranchisement could have some electoral impact in a number of constituencies. If prisoners are given the vote, they will likely have the choice between registering their address as the prison itself, or their previous home address (that choice is currently offered to prisoners on remand, who may already vote). If prisoners registered their prison, they could concentrate large numbers of votes in single constituencies, easily able to swing otherwise-close races.
There are 15 or so prisons with a population of over 1,000 inmates. The average population of a prison is around 600 inhabitants. To put that in context, 27 MPs had a majority of fewer than 600 votes last time around, and 45 MPs (about 7%) had majorities of under 1000 votes.
Imagine Bridget Fox (LibDem PPC) had been able to address a captive audience at Pentonville prison (average population over 1,000 inmates) in 2005 – it would have severely tested Emily Thornberry MP (Lab, Islington South & Finsbury), whose majority was a paltry 484 votes.
This time around, Sadiq Khan MP (Lab, Tooting) faces a tough challenge from Tatler Tory Mark Clarke. His majority of 5,381 is likely to be tested by the Conservative resurgence in the polls – the inmates of Wandsworth prison (again over 1000 of them) could make all the difference.
Caroline Flint MP (Lab, Don Valley) has two of the most populous prisons in the country in her constituency – Lindholme and Moorland (both Open and Closed). Her 8598 vote majority in 2005 is also likely to be under pressure, and no doubt her pronouncements on sentencing and probation could make all the difference if a new Bill is passed.
I have any number of problems with the new proposal – sovereignty issues, questions of retributive justice, the unfortunate anomaly of leaving Anglican Bishops with so little electoral company – but beyond those principles, there is a serious unanswered question as to what impact a co-ordinated campaign by prisoners in marginal constituencies could have. One presumes that having allowed the vote, prisoners would have to be free to avail themselves of the opportunity. Rather than the journey to the polling booth, a ballot box in the canteen where you live – that could see much higher turnout than in the population at large. The logistics of campaigning within prisons I can only imagine, but I can forsee it being seen as a gaping opportunity to secure significant additional votes in a tight race.
With our prison population still rising, and already over capacity, this could become something of an issue in the years to come. Titan Prisons still seem some way away from being realised, but should this new measure pass, we could be looking at many thousand enfranchised prisoners with an effective casting vote in a number of constituencies. My question is: who’s doing the math?
(Photo of Titan Prison from the BBC archives)