Progressive conservatism, dare I say it, liberal conservatism is facing a difficult philosophical position today – whether criminals who have committed acts directly contravening the law of the land should be able to partake in the democratic process.
The conservative side argues no – societal participation should be its own reward, governmental agenda shpuld not be forced on to citizens. That criminals by their nature have undermined the system by which we all adhere and therefore should be ‘excluded’ from that system as far as is humanely possible.
The progressive side argues for rehabilitation of criminals – that the reasons for crimes being committed in the first place could be down to their displaced position in society and that removing the right to vote should be reinstated, as a symbolic act of faith that they are still able to engage in the process.
One side for justification of reinstating (this term may be pushing it a tad as the last time they could was prior to the Forfeiture Act of 1817) is cost – demonstrating faith in offenders by allowing them to influence government may just be the catalyst they need to reintegrate and thus save valuable pennies in the budget.
But in a time of austerity, with apathy rife amongst all classes – will this appeal to the criminals? Is the right to vote really a large enough incentive to get them to rehabilitate themselves?
The Forfeiture Act (1817) details that criminals forfeit their right to liberty/freedom, but not their right to participate in societal developments. A technical detail that forms the backbone of the new Act from the EU court of Human Rights. But it is the political ramifications are most concerning.
We have little to no relevant data on the voting intentions/habits of inmates. They could be raving liberals of aggressive nationalists. They could be yet another constituency of people that could hold the balance of power in general elections. Will we start seeing future party leaders giving speeches in Feltham or Holloway? Will Dartmoor see candidate hustings? Potentially with the Conservatives being the party to bring this in; the government could secure a huge advantage with an unadulterated base of support for all future elections.
Or will they not bother voting at all?
In all this there some theoretical positives. If the Prison Reform Trust is correct then inmates could be rehabilitated in record time; resources will be utilised more effectively; taxpayer’s money could be saved.
However, if this works (and it’s a big if) could this help reinvigorate debate and engagement with the British political system? The threat of having a judge withdrawing the right to vote for individual prisoners may be a route to explore.
Old-school activists will find it hard to swallow – defining the Big Society was hard enough, how are we to contextualise to the hard working voter why the Tories are helping prisoners?
It’s no wonder that Conservatives are up in arms – this is un-chartered territory based on academic theories and European directives. A bitter pill to swallow, but a necessary one if we are to convince people that we are truly progressive.