In the second of our series on the work and importance of the Council of Europe, we look at democracy.
There is a general consensus that democracy is a “good thing”. So good, in fact, that countries that are not noticeably democratic in any way that we would recognise, have frequently included it in their name.
Britain has a proud record of promoting and defending democracy, so surely this should be a non-contentious part of our relationship with European bodies. Well, strangely not, and due to the issue of prisoner voting rights, it has been one of the biggest sources of discord for governments of all persuasions. We will come to that later because, as with so much of the European question, the issue has been used by those who favour nationalism over international cooperation.
Instead, we begin by looking at the steps the Council of Europe takes to promote and protect democracy, not just in Europe but, increasingly, across the world.
Although the actual language is a bit more precise the Council’s core principal (as expressed in Article 3 of Protocol No.1) is that “Everyone has the right to elect the government of his/her country by secret vote.”
To that end, it has a number of programmes looking at the improvement and future of democracy and, in 2005, established the Forum for the Future of Democracy. The aim of the Forum is to “strengthen democracy, political freedoms and citizens’ participation through the exchange of ideas, information and examples of best practices”.
“The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy.”Senator John Lewis 1940-2020
The development and implementation of standards for democracy is carried by the European Commission for Democracy through Law. This is better known as the Venice Commission and, over the years, it has helped countries in the drafting of new constitutions, laws on constitutional courts, electoral codes, minority rights and the legal framework relating to democratic institutions.
It’s work is highly valued and newly-democratised countries often seek its assistance and validation for their own elections. Indeed, this year a delegation of the Venice Commission accompanied an election observation delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly to advise on the legal framework of the elections in Georgia (NO – not the one in the USA!).
Last, but not least, it promotes democracy, democratic citizenship and youth participation. Something we could benefit from!
If we believe that democracy is a “good thing”, then protecting, promoting and advancing democracy is a “good thing” also, even if that means us having to occasionally challenge our own preconceptions of what democracy means. Which brings us nicely back to the subject of voting rights for prisoners.
Prisoners have not been able to vote in any UK election since 1870, a situation that was reinforced in 1983. In 2004, a prisoner who had been serving a life sentence for manslaughter was released from prison on licence. However, he was still prevented from voting and took his case to the ECHR, who found in his favour on the basis that a ‘general, automatic and indiscriminate’ ban violated the core principal mentioned above.
Over the course of the next 12 years, this was considered (but left unresolved) by the Labour, Conservative, and Coalition governments. Needless to say, this was simply seized on by those who wish to complain about European interference in the UK’s internal affairs. The differentiation between the ECHR and the EU was never being something they felt obliged to highlight though, as this less than subtle cartoon From the Daily Mail in 2012 shows: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2149057/Mac–prisoners-right-vote.html.
Eventually, an adult was allowed into the room in the form of David Lidington who, in 2017, changed the prison service guidance such that offenders released on temporary licence would be allowed to vote. Given that the blanket ban had been removed the ECHR was satisfied and the case was closed.
Whilst there can be much debate about the rights and wrongs of allowing prisoners to vote, there is surely a general acceptance of the principle that there should be no blanket ban that prohibits a group or section of society from voting.
With that bone of contention out of the way, surely Britain retains its place as a beacon at the pinnacle of the democratic system. Well, maybe not:
- Only last year, when faced with almost certain defeat over its plans for elected, the government sought to prorogue Parliament rather than face the democratically expressed will of those who had been elected to represent us.
- Ignoring the special case of the Isle of Wight, the most populous constituency in England (Bristol West) has almost twice the number of constituents as the least populous (Stoke-on-Trent Central). Two attempts made since 2011 to create a more equitable set of parliamentary constituencies have failed, primarily because ultimate approval lies with the MPs, some of whom would potentially be voting themselves out of a seat. In March this year the government announced it was ditching the 2018 proposals on the basis that MPs would face a larger workload after Brexit.
- The House of Lords, with around 800 voting members is the biggest second chamber in the world. During the summer, the Prime Minister appointed a further 36 peers, including his brother and a former England cricketer, Ian Botham.
- The last time a government in the United Kingdom achieved more than 50% of the popular vote was in 1931, when we experienced the exceptional situation of a National government following the Depression. The Conservatives came close in 1955, with 49.7% of the vote, which gave them a majority of 65 – fewer than the Prime Minister enjoys today.
- In a widely criticised move, earlier this year the chairman of the Conservative party, Amanda Milling, threatened to disband the Electoral Commission if it failed to open itself up to more scrutiny. Over the previous three years, the Commission had found against pro-Brexit groups for their spending during the referendum campaign and fined the Conservative party £70,000 for breaches of the regulations during the 2015 General Election, including in Ms Milling’s Cannock Chase seat.
Democracy is hard-won and easily lost. The Council of Europe performs a valuable role in helping to protect and spread it across Europe and the world.