Who Rules?

On Thursday the House of Commons partook of a discussion and division on the issue of voting by convicted prisoners. The result of this vote is not binding on the government being as it was simply a backbench motion allowing members to express an opinion on a matter that has yet to be formally presented to the house by the government. In the free vote that followed the debate the motion was passed by 234 to 22. A roll of honour/list of shame* is available. Those on the government payroll and the Labour front bench abstained.

That the matter was under discussion is the ‘work’ of John Hirst, a thug convicted of the manslaughter** of his landlady with an axe, who sued the UK under the Human Rights Act because he was not allowed to vote whilst he was detained at Her Majesty’s (dis-)pleasure. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in his favour and asked the UK government to look again at the issue.

Predictably there has been a lot of outrage at the thought of the likes of Hirst being allowed to play a part in democratic elections whilst in gaol with one opinion poll putting support for the idea at only 9%. David Cameron has been widely quoted as saying that the idea makes him ‘physically sick’.

The whole issue however is somewhat of a red herring, a trifling concern. According to the most recent breakdown of figures that I could find (2010-08) there are 31,630 convicted people in prison serving 4 years or less (excluding under 18’s and fine defaulters but including the unsentenced). By the same criteria there are only 11,433 serving less than 12 months. Those numbers aren’t enough to form a constituency of their own. Split evenly across the 600 constituencies (come the 2015 election) that equates to 53 or 19 each (assuming an even split). Those sort of numbers aren’t going to affect the outcome of a general election.

Rather the issue here is one of sovereignty: is Parliament – elected by the population of the UK – supreme or does an external institution take precedence? MPs like to maintain that they are still in charge – and today’s vote has no doubt resulted in lots of back slapping amongst the Eurosceptic wings of the big parties – but they aren’t and haven’t been so for some time.

Unless Cast Iron Dave uses the result to find himself a spine and finally gives the public the in or out referendum*** that all of the big three political parties have offered at one time or another then it is meaningless. Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has already said that the UK would ‘do the minimum necessary in order to comply’ with the ruling and something tells me that said stance will not have been altered by what went on today.

It would be nice to hope that this is the straw that finally broke the back of the proverbial camel but I doubt it. Our elected representatives are, generally, too wedded to the idea of further political and economic integration no matter what the cost. Indeed I doubt that many of them realise that the PR exercise which is the Referendum Lock promised by the collation government will have no affect on the ongoing transfer of sovereignty to European bodies.

* Delete according to your belief.

** During the debate various MPs referred to him in other terms but unlike them this blog is not protected by parliamentary privilege and therefore cannot be so blunt.

*** Yes, I am well aware that the ECHR is a Council of Europe body, not a European Union one but given the amount of overlap that exists between the two and being aware that provisions exist on both sides for integration, withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights would (hopefully) mean expulsion from both entities as membership of each requires the the Convention to be ratified.


  1. WitteringWitney says:

    Whether Parliament is supreme is a question that we both know has to be answered in the negative, at least not while the Executive can over rule the Legislature and while Parliament is staffed by those without a spine. Also whether the scenario you mention in your last footnote would happen – as you say, we can only hope

    But if it did – oh joy of joys!

  2. patently says:

    (assuming an even split)

    Quite an assumption. But generally I would agree that the actual practical effect would be minimal, provided prisoners vote in their former constituencies. So this is therefore a matter of principle, and it is refreshing to see our politicians taking a stand on principle for once.

    It will be interesting to see what happens if/when the executive takes a decision that is contrary to the clear will of the people and the expressed will of the legislature, purely to satisfy a non-UK Court…

    • Misanthrope Girl says:

      Without knowing any more about the breakdown, an even split was the only choice I could make. They can’t all be from the inner cities. :)

      Yes, this vote was one of principle but can you see Cameron and the collation taking note of the message and telling the ECHR to stick their decision? Ken Clarke has already near as dammit said that they won’t. It would be nice to think that such flagrant disregard for the legislature by the executive will rile the lobby fodder and make them actually do the job they are paid for but experience says that when it comes to the inevitable whipped vote on the issue the majority will do as they are told to.

  3. Demelza says:

    Parliament *is* sovereign. Supra-parliamentary bodies only have authority with parliament’s consent.

    It’s rather like a youth football club: often the person who runs it will run a tight regime with the words “the only thing that’s voluntary is belonging” – that is, if the manager puts on an extra training session it is effectively compulsory, and absentees will be subject to a hairdryer. So it is with the ECHR – they may appear to be a higher authority than parliament, but actually parliament has delegated areas of decision making to them, and can decide to rescind the delagation at whim.

    • Misanthrope Girl says:

      Theoretically I agree with you but in practice our politicians show no sign of doing so – or even allowing the electorate to have its say on the matter – therefore our legislature can no longer be considered sovereign. And that, so far as I am concerned, is a bloody disgrace.

  4. Rahul says:

    The sovereignty of parliament is a red herring for a libertarian. Surely a sovereign parliament could pass (with a simple majority) illiberal laws restricting individual freedoms/liberties. Yes, we could kick the bums out at the next elections but I haven’t known a government/ legislature to give up power once they’ve acquired it (read Labour’s electronic surveillance society, govt spending under Republic administrations etc.) This is where we need courts to protect us from parliament.

    A more interesting question for debate would be ‘should prisoners have the vote’. In fact are there any conditions by which a citizen/ resident should be denied the vote? My inclination (without having thought through this much) is that they should have the vote.

    • Misanthrope Girl says:

      I’m no fan of national governments, let alone trans-national governments, but in a choice between the two I’ll take the national one. Ideally I’d like to see all power devolved to the lowest possible level – the individual – but at the moment it is all going the other way.