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Give Prisoners the Vote

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Prisoners should be given the vote. At least some of them should - the non-murderers and non-rapists among them.

I know I am vastly in the minority with this opinion and I risk becoming very unpopular by publicising it, but as we are talking about democracy here. Please let us respect minority opinions and avoid that horribly-termed 'tyranny of the majority' danger!

I am writing this article on the day MPs vote in the House of Commons on whether to give prisoners in the UK the vote, having broken a European Court of Human Rights ruling for seven years by denying prisoners a say on election day - a position which the UK parliament has consistently stuck to.

I hear my opponents scream 'If you choose to break the law, you should lose your rights under that law.' But prisoners don't exist in a vacuum; they no longer get shipped off to a different country with different rules. They are very much at the mercy of the legislation made in parliament, in regional assemblies and in local councils. In fact they are often more susceptible to the laws our elected politicians and authorities enact. The law is constantly being changed, reviewed and discussed when it comes to our justice system and when the money is tight, as it is now, prisons are among the first institutions to face cuts as the public jump at the chance to punish those who are being punished even more.

So prisoners are affected by the decisions our elected politicians make more than most, and yet they have no say whatsoever in influencing the decisions that are directed squarely at them.

But most importantly, prisoners should be given the vote (apart from murderers and rapists) because it might at last force politicians to address the appalling conditions of the UK's prisons instead of the issue always being put on the backburner.

One of the events that shaped my rather unconventional support for giving prisoners the vote was when I visited Winson Green prison in Birmingham in 2009. I was shocked to discover such lack of regard for the most basic of human rights that the prisoners were subject to. In a room no bigger than my tiny single room in university halls were two single beds no more than a metre apart with a toilet at the end of the room and a minute window looking over the gloom of inner-city Birmingham. Deprived of any privacy, this is where prisoners are forced to live most of their lives in jail, without the chance to have any influence over how the local authority (Birmingham City Council) decides to treat their life inside.

Improving prisoner conditions does not win you votes of course - in fact it does the reverse by going against the will of the public. This tyranny of the majority over the minority, however, (sorry to use that terrible academic phrase again) is the most fundamental dangers of democracy and one which multicultural and multi-faith Britain is so good at protecting. We must extend that inherent British quality to those on the very margins of society, many of whom are the most vulnerable in our society.

I may sound like a hypocrite in advocating handing certain prisoners the vote and not others, such as murderers and rapists. Yes - all prisoners have broken the law - but to differing degrees, and for those who have taken the life of another human being or have raped and taken the soul of another human being, I believe at this point we can justifiably take away more of their human rights as it is the human which they have irreversibly harmed.

On a broader scale, we have a responsibility and a duty as a country to champion human rights across the world, and that important role is being undermined by continuing to deny prisoners the vote. We cannot pick and choose which parts of the European Convention on Human Rights we abide by while at the same time shouting and lecturing at the poor record of other countries, such as Russia for example. We either sign up to it and stand up to human rights abusers or we leave the treaty altogether and at the same time sacrifice our influence on the international scene.

I know many people would want me locked up simply for holding the view that at least some prisoners should be allowed the vote! Luckily I live in Britain and therefore enjoy the freedom of speech and therefore will (hopefully) avoid that outcome! But we must avoid the temptation to rule by majority, or else all kinds of draconian measures would be introduced, such as capital punishment. We must respect the basic human rights of all people and giving all adults in society at least a voice and a say in the rules they are subject to should be one of those fundamental rights, because that is how we can ensure even more fundamental human rights, such as the right to privacy, are protected.