Public says no to prison votes

Dr Joel Rogers de WaalAcademic Director, YouGov
November 25, 2012, 12:00 PM GMT+0

Many Brits say no prison votes, deport Abu Qatada regardless and bring back power from the European Court

According to last week’s poll from YouGov, a majority of Brits think Abu Qatada should be deported from the UK ‘regardless’ of whether or not a fair trial abroad can be guaranteed. In contrast, just 22% said he should be deported ‘only if’ a fair trial can be guaranteed.

The results belong to an on-going collaboration between YouGov and Dr June Edmunds of Cambridge and Sussex Universities, focussing on the politics of human rights in Britain and Europe.

Party differences in the results are significant, but still point in the same direction: 81% of those currently intending to vote Conservative preferred deportation regardless, alongside 65% of those currently intending to vote Labour and 48% of those currently intending to vote Liberal Democrat respectively.

Interestingly, the older you are, the stronger your preference for deportation is likely to be, with 49% of those aged 18-24 saying Qatada should be deported regardless, next to 58% of 25-39s, 75% of 40-59s and 81% of those aged 60 and over. The study also showed that working-class (C2DE) voters were marginally more likely to support deportation no matter what (72%) than middle-class (ABC1) voters (67%).

A tale of two rights: no trial by torture-evidence versus the state’s right to protect

Widely suspected of senior involvement in al Qaeda by authorities in Britain, Europe, the United States and the United Nations, Abu Qatada has been held in a UK prison for the last seven years under UK anti-terrorism laws, having arrived nearly twenty years ago as a Palestinian-Jordanian seeking asylum from alleged religious persecution in Jordan.

Following years of protracted debate between the government and its law lords, UK authorities got the green light for deportation this year, but the decision was blocked in January by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on grounds that Qatada might be tried in Jordan based on evidence gained through torture. He was then released on strict bail conditions in November after the UK’s Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) upheld an appeal against his deportation.

Behind the public wrangling ultimately lies a clash of two proclaimed rights: on one hand, the right of individuals to protection from trial by torture-evidence; on the other, the right of the state to deport a suspect deemed dangerous without having to convict them of a crime.

In Qatada’s case, the polling shows public opinion strongly in support of the latter. It also points towards a burgeoning trend, namely that the political fault-line between London and Europe now increasingly includes human rights.

Prison votes: right or luxury?

European Courts and the British public appear similarly at odds in the on-going debate on prison votes.

Downing Street came under renewed pressure last week from the ECHR to explain how it would comply with the European Court’s verdict that the UK ban on prisoners voting is illegal.

Supporters of lifting the ban (either wholly or partially) argue that having a democratic say is a basic human right rather than a civic luxury, which also potentially helps to engage or reintegrate the convicted with society. Supporters further contend that the UK accepted a partial ceding of sovereignty to the Council long ago, when it signed up to abide by the “final judgment” of the European Convention in 1951, and that a policy of picking and choosing on ECHR rulings could undermine the body’s overall authority to act on more serious human rights abuses in other countries, not to mention eroding British soft power while potentially incurring significant cost in financial punishment from Europe or litigation from UK prisoners.

Opponents counter that if you go to prison for breaking laws, you should forfeit the civic right during imprisonment to help in formulating them. They also proclaim that Parliament is ultimately sovereign and retains the right to a democratic override of external rulings, adding that both the European Court’s remit and its definition of human rights have expanded significantly without much of a catch-up debate since the immediate post-war period.

Here again we see a clash between European legal and British popular definitions of the inalienable human right.

In last week’s YouGov poll of 1812 British adults, 63% of respondents said that ‘no prisoners should be allowed to vote at elections’, versus only 8% saying that ‘all prisoners should be allowed to vote’, 9% who said ‘prisoners serving sentences of less than 4 years should be allowed to vote’, and 15% saying ‘prisoners serving sentences of less than 6 months should be allowed to vote’.

These trends are of a broad continuity: in an earlier YouGov survey of 752 British adults in late 2010, 76% of respondents said that in principle, prisoners should not have the right to vote, versus 17% who said they should and 7% who selected ‘Don’t know’. Meanwhile public opinion may have hardened on the possibilities of compromise: in a YouGov survey of 3,812 British adults from January this year, 38% said that people serving short prison sentences (less than 12 months) should have the right to vote in British elections.

60 years and shrinking (?) – British enthusiasm for the ECHR

Perhaps ironically, given its periodic bashing by British pundits and politicians, the ECHR is the European offspring of a British idea, established in 1959 in Strasbourg to enforce a treaty of common multilateral agreement on civil and political rights – the European Convention on Human Rights – which began life (arguably) as a post-war ambition of Winston Churchill.

Six decades on, there’s a perceptible preference in British public attitudes for a return of sovereignty on questions of human rights, and a significant consensus that believes the ECHR does less to protect Britain’s interests and more to protect its criminals. In a YouGov survey of 2419 British adults last year, 63% of respondents said it’s wrong for the ECHR to make rulings on subjects that the British Parliament or courts have decided, versus 25% who said it was right and a vital protection against the British government abusing people’s rights.

57% said that “Britain’s membership of the ECHR has been abused by lawyers making spurious cases on behalf of criminals and on balance it has been a bad thing”, versus 19% saying that “Britain’s membership of the ECHR has been a valuable protection against the government ignoring the human rights of British people, and on balance has been a good thing”. 55% said that Britain should not remain a member of the ECHR, and should have its own Bill of Rights instead, with the British Supreme Court as the final court of appeal, versus 24% saying that Britain should remain a member of the ECHR, with the European Court in Strasbourg as the final court of appeal.

The bigger challenge for European integration: survival versus legitimacy

The ECHR is commonly mistaken for sitting inside the European Union (EU) framework or for having responsibilities similar to the EU Court of Justice in ensuring compliance with EU law and rules on the application of EU treaties.

It does neither of those things. But UK frustrations towards the role and rulings of the ECHR help to underscore a wider challenge, both for EU-UK relations and the continued health of the European project overall.

The initial stages of post-Cold War globalisation were a golden age for the Third Way philosophy of economic dynamism plus social security that characterised governments such as Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and other avowed, post-Soviet centrists.

Over the last half decade, however, while globalisation has given rise to more state-centric government beyond the West, the political centre within its borders has been wilting.

Across Europe, hard times have energised the differences between Hard Left and Hard Right, while helping smaller parties to field cogent single-issue insurgencies. At the more fearsome edges, a political admixture of recession, outsourcing, immigration, multiculturalism, ethnic tensions and the threat of terrorism have given boost to populist xenophobia and fringe right electoral gains from east to west. Mainstream European opinion has also supported softer but renascent nationalisms, or tugs towards greater detachment, including within the UK.

Accordingly, the European project is now afflicted with a fundamental contradiction: in order for the Union to survive, a number of its institutions must become a whole lot more European, with deeper political union and more sovereignty surrendered in areas such as tax and spending. This comes at the very time, however, when many constituent peoples and demographic groups are pushing with new vigour to become more national.

In which case, the anti-recession drive for deeper European integration may have to include some newly imaginative, perhaps even radical, ideas for more direct European democracy between national publics and transnational institutions, or risk a continent-wide crisis of popular legitimacy.

See the recent YouGov survey results

See the YouGov survey results from 2011

See the YouGov survey results from 2010