Bartlett's Bizarre Bazaar
Comment, Comics and the Contrary.
Monday, May 30, 2005
My concern with ASBOs
A short while ago I mentioned, in passing, my concern with the legal phenomenon of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs). I’d like, here, to lay out some of the causes of my concern. I have no doubt that, in a certain sense, they ‘work’. But, ‘working’ is not identical to something being ‘just’, nor is a demonstration that a procedure can ‘work’ in itself a guarantee that it will, firstly, continue to do so or, secondly, that it will not be abused.
“Asbos can be served against children over 10 years of age or against adults if they have behaved “in an anti-social manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress”, and that the order is “necessary to protect persons from further anti-social acts”…
“Most asbos are imposed after an application by a local authority or the police. Asbos are made by magistrates' courts after civil proceedings and may be made on the basis of hearsay evidence.
Breaching an asbo is a criminal offence, carrying a penalty of up to five years' imprisonment, even when the original offence was not an imprisonable one. Around half of all asbos have been served on children and young people, who can be given detention training orders lasting up to two years.” (from ASBO Concern
The problem of a legal phenomenon such as this should be obvious.  An ASBO can be applied for on the basis of behaviour that is not in itself criminal.  The range of behaviour that can be the basis for an ASBO is (deliberately) elastic.  ASBOs are granted after a civil hearing in which hearsay evidence (of non-criminal behaviour) is allowed and the behaviour need not be proven in the sense that we demand in criminal cases.  An ASBO, when granted, transforms non-criminal behaviour (which is all that ever need to ‘proven’ in court at any stage) into an imprisonable offence.
There is a final, general problem that ASBOs present that is a product of all four of these. That is that ASBOs are applied for by the police or local authority and granted by magistrates. In other words, they are entirely at the discretion of the local establishment.
I need not present a list of bizarre or barely amusing ASBOs. That is not, in itself, the point. If we, as a society, decide that such acts as answering the front door in one’s underwear should be criminalised, or if we, as a society, decide that criminal acts should be punished by legally binding orders that prevent to proven offender from performing otherwise legal acts, then these is something that we should argue against (or, indeed, defend). If these were what were decided, and if these were subject to being proven beyond reasonable doubt, then our arguments would be conducted on the basis of which acts we ought to criminalise and in what way we ought to punish such acts. But that is not the argument that should be had over ASBOs, and to join such debates when discussing ASBOs is to both miss the point and to hand victory in the debate to illiberal voices proposing an unjust legal process. These examples are valuable in so much that they highlight the elasticity of the types of behaviour that can be described as being “in an anti-social manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress”. This can include behaviour that our democracy has explicitly decided is not criminal and/or imprisonable, such as prostitution, attempted suicide or behaviour arising from mental illness. But that the definition of anti-social behaviour is dangerously elastic is plainly obvious, and even if there had been no bizarre or unusual ASBOs, only the most naïve would suggest that this was not only an accident of history. This is the first plank of my opposition to ASBOs, with an associated plank constructed from the fact of the enormously elastic discretion given to judges in determining the content of the order.
But the second, and major, plank of my objection is this: I argue that even in the cases in which the behaviour that is the basis on which an ASBO has been granted is, by general consensus, anti-social to the degree that it should be criminalised, the process by which the ASBO has been granted and by which punishment served is, nevertheless, unjust. The end result of an ASBO can be five years imprisonment. The initial granting of an ASBO can be made on the basis of behaviour that is not criminal. That this behaviour has even occurred need not be proven in any conventional legal sense. After this, all that need be proven is that the normally non-criminal, yet personally criminalised, behaviour has been penalised. This is necessarily problematic, in terms of providing a just legal process.
It would be little improvement if the elasticity of the behaviour that can be ‘defined’ as anti-social were tightened, or if the discretion over the content of the order were narrowed. Demanding this is a side-point – easy to argue and with a ready well of public sympathy to draw upon. But this would still leave what is essentially a legal short-cut to criminalisation open. Many will instinctively argue that ASBOa allow the imprisonment of people who are a serious menace to society. But we would not allow such a legal short cut to imprisonment in even more serious cases. We would not, collectively at least, demand the imprisonment of accused murderers, or rapists, or kidnappers, without first proving the case against them beyond reasonable doubt in court. And we should not allow such a serious punishment as five years imprisonment to be held over people on the basis of unproven non-criminal behaviour, regardless of the hearsay and/or the accusation of the local establishment.
We ought to ‘prove’ cases of criminal behaviour. We ought to criminalise behaviour on the basis of explicit democratic decision making. But this reactionary removal of rights at the very point at which they are most necessary – in court – is dangerous, and is actually a move away from what we understand as ‘rule of law’ (as opposed to an ordered and disciplined society), however appealing it may be.
Sunday, May 22, 2005
A pledge on ID
I admit it; I am not a fan of Identification Card legislation. Identification Cards will reduce our civil liberties. If the cards are to be of any value to the practice of law enforcement people will have to be required to carry them. It will formalise and accelerate the trend where it is demanded of people that they provide documentary evidence of their legitimacy. This process of constant identification and verification will create a powerful database containing the actions, movements and interests of people. This invasion of privacy may have legitimate uses, but it is nevertheless open to abuse. It is not enough to say, ‘If you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear.’ If that were to be a realistic argument, rather than a rhetoric trick employed by the dishonest or the feebleminded, then those using it could have no objection to me searching their house, listening to their phone calls, or watching them as they make love. And so on. But of course they would have objections. But I am relatively powerless. Imagine what value such information could have in the hands of people with vastly greater power to act; the very people who would have access to the database.
But this is not a libertarian argument against Identification Cards. This is a socialist argument against Identification Cards. I believe that government (and the economy) should be under democratic control. Identification Cards are part of a process of that is reversing the trend towards political and economic democracy. Rather than increasing the accountability of the state to the people, Identification Cards make people accountable to the institution of government. Furthermore, given the habit of New Labour (and their shadowy enemies, the Tories, are no different), government will delegate these powers to business, as private companies will seek to extract profit from the cards and the resulting database.
It is with this privatisation of government and law enforcement where I depart from the arguments put forward by many anti-Identification Card campaigners. I see Identification Cards as being only inadvertently anti-civil liberties. This is despite the authoritarian tendencies of this New Labour government, a tendency that was confirmed by the bills laid out in the Queen’s Speech. I oppose Identification Cards as I see them as an anti-democratic (in a manner quite distinct from civil liberties concerns) pincer movement. One claw of this pincer is the privatisation of law enforcement (or whatever it is that will be the latest justification for Identification Cards). It is important that law enforcement is accountable to the people (and is of the people), yet privatisation sets up barriers that obstruct this accountability. More than that, the scheme to establish an Identification Card scheme in Britain will be tremendously expensive. I have no problem with big government per se, but this is not what Identification Cards are. They are the allocation of public money to private companies in what can only be a repeat of the grossly inefficient IT schemes (see for example, the CSA and the Police radio scandals), possibly in conjunction with the pork-barrel politics of Public-Private Partnerships. It other words, power and wealth are siphoned from our democratic institutions and into the hands of private interests. This appears to be New Labour dogma. Handing public money and public power to private interests to profit from seems to me to be institutionalised and legalised corruption.
You might argue that this decision is being made democratically, so therefore the result is democratic. To which I reply, “don’t be a fool!” A decision made democratically can be profoundly anti-democratic. If we all voted for an absolute monarchy, would we then still be a democracy?
Last, let us consider the arguments for Identification Cards:
They would help fight terrorism. When the spectre of terrorism is raised by authoritarian politicians they are drawing on the image of 9/11. All the hijackers on 9/11 carried perfectly legal identification documentation. Identification Cards, no matter how sophisticated, would not have stopped them. The proponents of Identification Cards know this. To invoke the memory of nearly 3,000 dead in such circumstances is distastefully dishonest. Neither would Identification Cards have prevented the bombings in Madrid. Just which act of terrorism would Identification Cards have foiled?
Faced with these arguments, proponents of Identification Cards backslide, without conceding their terrorist-fighting credentials. They start to talk about crime, about benefits and on and on.
How would Identification Cards prevent crime, exactly? The only way this could work is if the police start routinely pulling people off the streets and checking their identity. If you are for this sort of slip towards a police state, then I am violently against you. You are either foolish or wicked.
Benefits. Ah yes, the argument of last resort for Identification Card proponents. I would be with you on this one. As soon as tax evasion is tackled with the full force of drastic authoritarian initiatives. As soon as the businessman who buys dinner for his friends and family and claims it as a business expense for tax purposes has his door kicked in by abusive policemen. Indeed, as soon as the amount of estimated benefit fraud exceeds the amount of benefit that goes unclaimed by people either too proud to claim what they need and deserve, or those excluded from the knowledges required to claim. As soon as those measures are in place, I am with you. Until then I see what this argument is, a demonisation of the poor and powerless which deflects blame for the state of the nation away from those in power (necessarily, those responsible) – and more than that, allows them to profit from the demonisation of the poor through a privatised surveillance system.
There are no good arguments for an Identification Card system in the reality of 21st century Britain. I pledge not to sign up for one. I urge you to do so too.
[link thanks to Shot By Both Sides
Tuesday, May 17, 2005
Buy Tales of the Contrary and Empirical Majesty #1
You can now buy both of these comics for £2.50 (inc. postage) using PayPal. Don’t click on the donate button above – unless you want to donate some money to me – but e-mail me at aj_bartlett1977(at)yahoo(dot)co(dot)uk with your order and address and I will send you a PayPal invoice.Tales of the Contrary
Five dark stories about power. Hard Hunter, Soft Heart (5 pages), Hereditary Genius (9 pages), Johnny Upright (5 pages), The Captain (6 page illustrated text story) and A Complete Revolution (1 page). All the art was provided by Dave Evans – the hardest working artist in British small-press comics – with Richmond Clements providing the greyscale tones. 26 pages of story, 28 pages in all – b/w A4 size – cover price £1.50.Empirical Majesty #1
The first chapter in an alternative history adventure. Professor (and spy) Kelvin Vijay Brooke uncovers dark forces at work behind the throne of the Empirical Majesty is a post-Scientific Revolution – where the revolution aspect was taken literally – Britain. Art by Eleonora Kortsarz. Chapter two coming soon! 12 pages of story, 16 pages in all – b/w A5 size with card cover – cover price 50p.
Monday, May 16, 2005
Iron(y) willed government
The pronouncements of the American government would amuse, if it were not for the overwhelming power of those doing the speaking. Previously, my favourite line was the oft-repeated complaint that ‘foreign-fighters’ were responsible for all the chaos and violence in Iraq. How the US Army spokesmen in Iraq could say this without winking at the camera in acknowledgement of self-knowledge is beyond me. Perhaps they are deadpan humorists in the vein of Jack Dee or Stephen Wright.
This line is now old hat, and has been replaced by White House spokesman Scott McClellan’s recent statement that the“people of Uzbekistan want to see a more representative and democratic government. But that should come through peaceful means, not through violence.”
Condemning the violent pursuit of democracy and the overthrow of a dictator? So what is new? Islam Karimov is just example of; “He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he is our son-of-a-bitch”. Craig Murray, the former ambassador to Uzbekistan, has written an article outlining just why he is our (well, the US’) son-of-a-bitch
.Immediate update: Lenin’s Tomb
has this quote from Jack Straw:
“It's for the people to decide on a change of regime, not outsiders.”
Monday, May 09, 2005
Comics - coming very soon
This weekend I will be travelling to the Bristol Comics Expo
. I will be taking two new comics with me, but if you are unable to buy them from me in person then you can always e-mail me and I will post the comics to you. Empirical Majesty (Chapter One – 12 pages of strip – 75p*) is a continuing story with art from Eleonora Kortsarz. Tales of the Contrary is a collection of four short strips (Hard Hunter, Soft Heart – 5 pages, Hereditary Genius – 9 pages, Johnny Upright – 5 pages, Complete Revolution – 1 page) and one text story (The Captain – 6 pages), all with art thanks to Dave Evans
. I am selling Tales of the Contrary for £1.50.
E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
to order a copy of one or both.
: Empirical Majesty - chapter one is only 50p.
If you are going to smear, smear well
I have sent this letter to the Reader’s Editor of the Observer. Thanks to Dead Men Left
(and Bat) for pointing out the details of this story.
XX Xxxxxxxxxxxx Xxxxxx
9th May 2005
3-7 Herbal Hill
George Galloway has been taking a bit of a kicking from the media for some time now. Most of it has a completely hysterical tone, but the article by Euan Ferguson (Observer, May 8th) must be eligible for some kind of award:“Elsewhere in Bethnal Green, student Benjamin Virgo, 34, explained what had happened to him on Tuesday night. 'On the way out to the corner shop to buy milk and bread I passed a couple of young guys. After I'd crossed the road they threw a bottle at me. They became more aggressive, so I reached for my mobile and started to call the police. They followed me into the shop and announced to the other customers and staff that I was a racist. Then, fists in my face, they ordered me to stop my call, reminded me that they knew where I lived and threatened to burn my house down. The police never came. George Galloway is now my MP.’”
I do not live in Bethnal Green and Bow. But I have an analogous story. A few months ago a woman was murdered and her body left in an alley just a few streets from my house (true). Kevin Brennan of the Labour Party was the sitting MP, and was returned to Parliament on Thursday (true). These two facts are not connected. Neither, it seems, is the assault on Benjamin Virgo and the election of George Galloway as an MP.
Linking these events in such a way is plainly an attempt at a smear. This smear, furthermore, is shot through with racist overtones. Though the quoted paragraph does not describe the ‘young guys’, that the story contains an allegation of racism against Benjamin Virgo and content of other anecdotes in the remainder of the article clearly ask us to assume that the young men are Asian. This is not a logical deduction from the text of the article, but any person arguing that this inference will not be a common reaction to reading this piece is either being disingenuous or has lived in a bubble, isolated from the the now standard descriptions of the election contest in Bethnal Green and Bow. It would appear that either Benjamin Virgo or Euan Ferguson has encouraged this inference on the part of the reader while washing their hands of any responsibility for this inference by a careful choice of words. And it will no doubt do the trick – and it is a trick – readers will leave the piece associating George Galloway with violence by young (Asian) men.
Euan Ferguson’s possible defence of, ‘that is not what I wrote, literally speaking’ raises a further question. If that is not what he meant this anecdote to imply, then what was the point of including this anecdote in his piece? It simply describes two unconnected events in a manner that implies connection. The most generous explanation is that Euan Ferguson is an incompetent writer. Slightly less savoury is the excuse that this anecdote was mere filler, an unconsidered inclusion to pad out the piece. Is Euan Ferguson paid by the word?
Of course, there is another explanation, one that leaves Euan Ferguson exonerated of a deliberate attempt at a smear but still leaving him guilty of foolishness. The anecdote is provided by Benjamin Virgo, a 34 year old student. I do not think that it is a particular stretch of the imagination to assume, quite reasonably, that Benjamin Virgo is the same person as Ben Virgo, the 34 year old student who allowed his family to become underhand campaign tools of New Labour and Oona King
. Is this just more cynical campaigning, the dissemination of New Labour’s distorted vision of the world under the pretence that this is an independent voice (of hard working families)? Considered this way we are bound to find it suspicious that the anecdote claims that the police did not turn up. This, after all, leaves us with no official record or corroboration of the event.
Of course, here is where this smear reaches the heights of hysteria. The MP for Bethnal Green and Bow at the time of the assault was Oona King. George Galloway had no influence on policing at the time. To place the statements, “The police never came” and “George Galloway is now my MP” alongside each other implies connection. But there is none.
I am disappointed that The Observer would print this smear,
After I sent this letter I found a lovely insight into the political concerns of Ben Virgo. He is reported as attending UCL Conservative Society meeting last autumn. According to the Mr J Robertson, who met him at the event, "I thought I'd found in him a solid Conservative supporter. His biggest political concern appeared to be his children's education in a school where many of the classmates do not speak English, and that he would ideally like to move from Bethnal Green."
Accusations that George Galloway has played a communalist card (I am not sure if I understand this muddled idea, but a white Catholic Scot would find it difficult to appeal to voters from the Bengali-community by saying, ‘I am one of you’) always seem to turn around and slap the faces New Labour. They did, after all, distribute quite different election material in Muslim and non-Muslim areas, and now it is revealed that one of their campaign tools was motivated mainly by concerns was that there were too many immigrants. That may be a legitimate position – though I would argue that it is not – but it is dishonest to use this man and claim that it is your opponents who are communalist.
So who DID I vote for?
And what did I bet on? Well, most important things first. I put £2 on George Galloway to win Bethnal Green and Bow. That was a win
. I put £2 on Oliver Letwin to lose his Dorset West seat. I lost that one
. I put £2 on Ynys Mons (Anglesey) to fall to Plaid Cymru. I lost that one
. I put £2 on Cardiff Central to swing to the Liberal Democrats. That was a win
. And my final bet of £2 was that the turnout to be between 60% and 64%. And it was around 61%. So I made money, not very much, but some, with my high-rolling strategies. But Galloway did keep me up far too late into Friday morning.
In the end, at about half-past eight on the morning of May 5th, I voted Liberal Democrat. Brownie, from Harry’s Place
, has this to say about people like me:“if, comrades, in an act of treacherous self-indulgence, you risked all this with a protest vote yesterday, then shame on you. // Shame on you.”
Now, this is about as stupid as political comments get. But then, Harry’s Place has turned into the home of, on the one hand, Islamophobes, and on the other, Blairite cheerleaders. I do not remember it always being this way, but that is how it looks now. The eye-watering irony of this quote above is that the re-election of a Labour government will be taken by these people as a mandate for New Labour policies and an endorsement of what has gone before. Now, if the shame that I am being smeared with is to stick, there must have been a way to vote New Labour without that vote being seen as an endorsement for war and privatisation and a mandate for more of the same. It is, I am afraid, one thing or the other. Either a vote for Labour is an ambivalent message, signalling support for the Labour movement and nothing more*, or it is not shameful treachery to cast a vote outside the Labour Party. The only way to maintain the ‘treachery’ line while holding on to the idea that a vote equals approval for the entire programme is to suppose that any disagreement is treachery. Which is a totalitarian line in thinking. Shame on you, Brownie. Shame on Harry’s Place. In fact, shame on them for tolerating the Muslim hating comments. This is not to say that a comment in an open comments box is equal to approval. But if the authors of the posts and the hosts of the blog are involved in the comments boxes challenging any opposition to the war in Iraq or other Blairite adventures and right-wing policy, to stay silent when Islamophobes and the rabidly anti-left colonise this discussion space is very strange.
I wanted to vote Labour. I really did. But on a whole host of issues, from PFI to ASBOs, and yes, the war in Iraq, I felt that I could not. So I voted Liberal Democrat. I do not agree with everything that they say, and I probably would not trust them. But then, the same is true of New Labour. But they were the only one of the three main parties that stood against the erosion of civil liberties, were nominally against the war and that were happy to speak openly about their support for people seeking asylum in Britain. Living in Cardiff West I would have gambled a lot more than £2 on the Labour candidate Kevin Brennan holding on to the seat
. I voted for the Liberal Democrats for two reasons. One, to say that my vote cannot be assumed to belong to the Labour Party. My support depends on their policies and their rhetoric. Two, to cast my vote for a party that had a serious chance of pushing the Tories into third place, removing them from the local political landscape. If this strategy was successful, the next election in Cardiff West would be fought further to the left-liberal end of the political spectrum, rather than being tainted by the Tories authoritarian right-wing ideas. Unfortunately the swing to the Liberal Democrats was not quite enough to push the Tories into obscurity.
*I was going to write, ‘support for the Labour movement and socialism and nothing more’, but thought this would overstate the case for New Labour.
Thursday, May 05, 2005
So who do we for NOW?
Well, who do I vote for in a few hours time? That, on the day of the election, is still the question. After I finish writing this I will go to bed, waking, in too few hours for comfort and effective functioning, to cast my vote at the Canton Uniting Church Hall, Cardiff. In all probability I will have fulfilled my democratic duty by around half past eight.
My choices in Cardiff West are limited. They are (thanks to the excellent Guardian Unlimited Ask Aristotle
, ConservativeKevin Brennan
, LabourAlison Goldsworthy
, Liberal DemocratNeil McEvoy
, Plaid CymruJoe Callan
, UK Independence PartyCatherine Taylor-Dawson
, Rainbow Dream Ticket
For the sake of background I will point out that Kevin Brennan is the sitting Labour MP. From my examination of his voting record he is a Blair loyalist. In 2001 he won an absolute majority with 54.6% of the vote and a 23.3% (11,321 votes) margin over the second placed Tories. He didn’t do as well as Rhodri Morgan, the previous Labour MP, who in 1997 won 60.3% of the vote and a majority of 15,628 votes. The interesting point here is that the Tories won almost exactly the same percentage of the vote in both elections, with Labour losing a few percent (of a reduced turnout) to the Liberal Democrats. If this swing to the Lib Dems continued at the ballot box tomorrow then we would not see a Tory MP. We would see Kevin Brennan returned as our MP with a reduced majority, possibly with Alison Goldsworthy in second place, pushing the Tories towards irrelevance. This is a very attractive prospect for someone who wants Britain to develop a more left-wing, socially liberal and economically socialist political climate. The Lib Dems might not be my cup of tea personally, but if we are playing the lesser-of-two-evils game – as Labour appear to be doing – then the Lib Dems are the lesser of two evils in opposition.
So, let me run through the pros and cons of each candidates in alphabetical order:
Simon Baker (Conservative): I will not vote for this party. I have demonstrated that Michael Howard uses completely dishonest rhetoric
(either that or he is a complete fool). Furthermore this rhetoric is used to push Britain towards an intolerant, xenophobic and more unequal and authoritarian society.
Kevin Brennan (Labour): Labour is the party that I want to vote for. They are the party of trade unions, of socialism, of the National Health Service and comprehensive education. They are the party that, at their best stood against imperialism and colonialism, and their domestic reflections, racism, xenophobia, intolerance and authoritarianism. Is Labour that party now? Is Kevin Brennan part of that tradition? It seems to me that the party has abandoned these beliefs, with contempt shown towards trade union leaders as business leaders are treated with the reverence. With the championing of academy and specialist schools in a move that is systematically dismantling the comprehensive dream, while at the same time eroding the foundations of the NHS with the establishment of foundation hospitals – all the time placing our future in the pawnshop with the development of PFI contracts, contracts that bring no new ‘efficiency’, only remove money and power from the people and their democratic representatives. With the introduction of authoritarian measures from ASBOs to anti-terrorist legislation to sate the appetite for tough justice, apparently without considering whether the measures will either work to reduce crime or to produce a legal system that is just, it has driven the country firmly towards the right. With the rhetoric of being tough of asylum and immigration, of deterring people from seeking refuge, it has not made the case for a tolerant, generous Britain, and reinforced and legitimated the prejudice of bigots. And this party has launched a war. It might be that Tony Blair and his pro-war Labour colleagues launched this war with no motive other than humanitarianism. But they are not the men and women who would determine the course of the war and the subsequent and continuing occupation. Those men and women work in Washington, and their personal and ideological CVs are track records of death squads, torture, puppet governments and brutalised, dehumanised peoples. These people did not devise the plans for war for the good of mankind. What will prevent the Labour Party from tying its humanitarian and internationalist aspirations to the whims of men and women who murdered their comrades in Latin America, in the Middle East, in Africa and in South East Asia?
Alison Goldsworthy (Liberal Democrat): I was, shamefully, a member of the Liberal Democrats for a short time. I joined because I thought that they were a principled party with left-wing principles to boot. I left because I discovered that they were an unprincipled party willing to adopt to rhetoric of the Tories if that was where the marginal seats were, and that where I did find principles I found that they were economically right-wing. But the Liberal Democrats have opposed the most authoritarian of the Labour governments policies, and have stood against the political weather to champion the rights of immigrants and those seeking refuge. They have also opposed the war in Iraq, in a manner of speaking. It might be that these attitudes have been adopted purely to capture the vote of people like myself. But then, while this is not the way I would like to see democracy work, should I not attempt to send a message that there are votes to be won by proposes these policies and making these arguments, thereby shifting the political climate somewhat towards the liberal, soft-left line?
Neil McEvoy (Plaid Cymru): Well, they do have a quite socialist policy platform. And they do claim to be in second place in the race according to the leaflet posted through my door today. But I am not sure I believe their canvassing. And they are a nationalist party. My conscience would be strained voting for a nationalist party. But would it be more strained than if I voted for a party that had launched a war?
I am sorry, Joe Callan (UKIP) and Catherine Taylor-Dawson (RDT), but you are joking if you think that you will win my vote.
So, I am down to (New) Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru. How to vote? Well, first you take the pencil, point the sharp end at the ballot paper and… Not for Plaid, I am afraid. For the Liberal Democrats, hoping to beat the Tories into third place and shift the political climate leftwards and liberally? Or for Labour, the party that is still, at least, the party of trade unions? I still cannot decide. Tonight I will skim read John Harris’ So Now Who Do We Vote For? And tomorrow, perhaps, I will toss a coin. I will be gambling a bit of money on various aspects of this election anyway, from George Galloway to win Bethnal Green and Bow
to Oliver Letwin to lose Dorset West
. I will post on the amounts, the odds, and the result of that coin toss tomorrow. I want to vote Labour, but I am unwillingly making the argument that here, in a constituency with a massive Labour majority, a vote for the Liberal Democrats is a reasoned and effective anti-Tory vote.
Incidentally, Guardian Unlimited describes Cardiff West
as “innercity, massive council estates, docks, high crime and racial tension”. This is not a picture I recognise, certainly not when compared to other constituency profiles on Guardian Unlimited.
Wednesday, May 04, 2005
No, this column will not be about the victory of Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF
in the recent elections in Zimbabwe. Nor will it be about the “massive, systematic and organised fraud”
that returned six Labour councillors during last year’s local elections in Birmingham. Nor will it be about Dame Shirley Porter
and her gerrymandering and continued evasion of justice. Hell, it won’t even be about George W Bush, Jeb Bush, hanging chads or Diebold™ electronic voting machines. This column is about convicted criminals voting in elections, not running, competing in, and winning elections.
In America there has been, of course, some controversy over the right of convicted criminals to vote. In some states criminals permanently lose their rights to vote, while in others regaining the right to vote is costly and difficult to regain. Human Rights Watch had this to say in 2001:“An estimated 3.9 million U.S. citizens were disenfranchised, including over one million who had fully completed their sentences. Black Americans were particularly hard hit by disenfranchisement laws: 13 percent of black men-1.4 million-were disenfranchised; in two states, almost one in three black men was unable to vote because of a felony conviction.”
An important point regarding the American situation, aside from the boast to be the world’s beacon of democracy – the Shining City on the Hill that disenfranchises a greater proportion of its population than any other industrialised democratic nation – is the classification of drug convictions in many American states. It seems to me to be somewhat suspicious that a conviction for marijuana will, in many states, be a felony conviction. Now, the severity of the sentence itself might be relatively humane, but the categorisation of the offence as a felony not only has the double whammy of making the offender almost unemployable and ineligible for welfare, but also removes the right of the offender to vote. This disproportionately effects the poor, and to argue this we need not make any link between poverty and crime in general, we need simply point out that the drugs that poor people have access to are illegal, while the wealthier people are able to effectively self-prescribe themselves painkillers, anti-depressants etc. in America’s for-profit marketised health-care system. But before we trail off the point and begin discussing the lunacy of drug laws in a nation of self-medicators we can say this; people convicted of crimes are denied the right to participate in a democratic political system, and the democratic political system determines what acts are criminal, and which demand disenfranchisement. Before anyone argues that as the decision was taken democratically then the result of that decision is democracy, may I point out that this is the babble of an electorophile. Even if an overwhelming majority vote to do away with democracy, what we then have is patently not democracy. And disenfranchisement is the reduction of democracy, and the case for such a policy must be well-reasoned, not simply the maintenance of a retributive tradition – or indeed, insidious racism.
But let us bring the argument closer to home, and discuss the situation with regards to UK elections, given that the general election is this Thursday. The Liberal Democrats have suggested that prisoners should be allowed to vote. The Liberal Democrats are supporting a campaign coordinated by the Prison Reform Trust
titled ‘Barred from Voting’ (see the pun – you always need a pun), a campaign backed by politicians drawn from all three of the major political parties. Nevertheless, both Labour and the Conservatives have used Charles Kennedy’s support of the campaign as evidence that he, and the Liberal Democrats (conveniently ignoring the cross-party support this campaign has received) is soft on crime. This is, I am convinced, utter nonsense. This conviction (see) springs from three lines of argument – though I have no doubt that there are others that will occur to me moments after I post this piece.
First is the argument of rationality and responsibility for behaviour: for a democracy to disenfranchise members of its voting population an overwhelmingly persuasive argument in needed. The franchise should be extended to all those capable of making a reasoned decision. Given that criminals are found guilty on the basis that they are rational actors – not children or the insane; we no longer submit inanimate objects to trial either – then the argument that they are inherently unable to democratically express their will must exist with the corollary argument that these same criminals should not be in jail receiving punishment, but should rather be receiving the treatment suitable to non-rational, non-responsible persons. Of course, those seeking to deny prisoners the right to vote do not acknowledge the necessary conclusion of their denial of prisoners voting rights. Because their arguments are utter nonsense.
The second is the two part democratic demand: the first part of which simply demands that all members of a community take part in shaping the future political governance of that community. The second demand is somewhat more complex and specific to the case of the convicted criminal. What is categorised as criminal is a decision for the democratic process. It is decidedly anti-democratic to categorise people as criminals and then deny them the formal means with which express their democratic opinion on the law that categorised them so. We may think that we have reached a plateau of criminal law; that everything currently criminal ought forever stay so, and that everything currently legal will always be permitted. But I am sure that as much a people thinks this today, people also thought this when homosexuality was illegal, when heroin was legal, when abortion was illegal and when it was legal to hit your wife and legally impossible to rape her. We might not be able to see the flaws in our categorisation of acts, as indeed majorities could not during our recent history. That does not mean that we are right, and our very idea of democracy demands that we allow people we categorise as criminals and lock up in jail are given the right to argue for their freedom. Not only on the basis that they are innocent of the crime that they have been convicted of, a claim that can be dealt with by the criminal justice system. But on the basis that the act which they committed should not be categorised as criminal, or even that the criminal justice system we employ is not the system that ought to be employed. This argument does not ask us to believe that these people are right, but simply that, in a democracy, they should be allowed the freedom to make their arguments – and in a democracy the simplest, most fundamental form of expression is the vote.
Third is the argument of numbers: despite having a relatively high number of people in jail compared to our European neighbours, the proportion of our population in jail at any one time is pifflingly small. Even if prisoners were to vote in the constituency in which they serve their prison time they could not, in themselves, affect the overall result of any but the most marginal of marginal seats. But most prisoners would not want to vote for the MP of a constituency of which their only experience is the inside of a jail. They will want to vote in their home communities – the communities in which they have a future. Given that the presence of prisoners on the electoral roll would not make up a significant demographic shift in our democracy, the question must be asked – why not give these people a right considered to be among the most precious of those granted by our civilisation? Of course, the counter argument asks us to imagine a future in which crime is so rampant the great numbers of people disenfranchised would in fact make a difference to the outcome of our democracy (see the case of the USA and the black Floridians). In which case we say that such a shift in numbers should tell us that there is something seriously wrong with our society; perhaps the acts classified as being disenfranchising crimes are too inclusive, and thus the democracy is too exclusive to hold onto that title. Perhaps society has broken down to such an extent that crime is an unfocused replacement for revolution, and thus democracy has failed great numbers of the people. Or perhaps this is merely a fantasy that exists only in the head of right-wing science-fiction writers.
Eugene Debs was wrong on one thing – he was a better man than I am:“Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on the Earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; While there is a criminal element, I am of it; While there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” (1918)Prisoner voting rights: world views
Monday, May 02, 2005
The Daily Mail vs. Asylum
News just off the press! The Daily Mail led a passionate campaign against the British hosting of Basque children, who had fled Spain in the 1930s to seek asylum with the people of Britain. I unearthed this amazing new story* while watching ‘The Guernica Children’ on BBC Four. Given the viewing figures that BBC Four receives I think I can claim this story as an exclusive. The campaign consisted of obsessively reporting any crimes committed by the child refugees. Of course, admitted a man who had offered his services as a translator at the time, many of these stories were true. But the necessary discrimination that is employed in building any picture of the world – as any such picture must be partial – can be used to produce discrimination of a different category. By reporting the crimes (or, let us be honest, hi-jinks) of the refugee children the Daily Mail sought to use a partial presentation of the truth to build up a popular dislike, hate even, of these children. And send them back to Franco.
The shame is not only that the Daily Mail is still extant. The shame is not only that it runs exactly the same kind of campaigns against people seeking, and granted, asylum in Britain today. The shame is that it is inconceivable that Britain would accept crowded boatloads of refugee children today. Instead of looking back at that period with pride, and seeking to emulate the great-hearted people who welcomed the children, we look with envy at Australia, a country that locks up refugee children in camps in the desert (or indeed, on desert islands). We hope to copy them, and our second party imports the election guru who helped demonise and dehumanise these refugees. If we must deport anyone, let it be him.
And then I turn over to BBC News 24 just in time to watch the odious toad, Bruce Anderson, railing against asylum seekers. Times do change. But it does not mean that the past does not echo if we do not speak loudly in favour of human equality, decency and rights, and against the small-minded, the prejudiced and the hateful.
*I am joking – we should all know that the Daily Mail is a hate-filled rag; what is impressive is the fact that the culture has been so effectively preserved – I would say fossilised, but unfortunately the fascists’ and racists’ favourite newspaper is not dead.
Spanish Refugees and Basque Children