Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Archive for May, 2012|Monthly archive page

Prisoner Votes

In Punishment on May 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM

I am a keen reader of normblog, the weblog of Norman Geras, Professor Emeritus of Government at the University of Manchester.  While he does not allow comments on the blog, he will often respond to readers if they contact him on his Twitter feed, which is something else that I follow. The fact that Norm kindly profiled me on his blog has absolutely no bearing on my positive recommendation. Well, it might have some bearing, but in truth it is minor compared to posts such as this one, which led me to reading this wonderful article.

But I am digressing. The purpose of this post is not to praise Norman Geras but to note a disagreement. He has been writing quite extensively on his blog about prisoner votes.  (See here plus follow his internal links.)  Norm appears to be  against prisoners having votes and I am in favour. One of Norm’s points is this:

so many supporters of voting rights for prisoners feel it unnecessary to make any case for them; they just take it for granted that prisoners have the right to vote and have it unconditionally.

If truth be told I would put myself in that camp. I do not really see why it needs justifying why prisoners need a vote. I feel the onus is more on the those who feel that prisoners are not entitled to a vote to explain their reasoning. In any event, here I shall provide one reason why I feel that prisoners with terms where they are likely not to serve five more years should have a right to vote.

General elections in the UK are not on fixed dates like the US Presidential election, the dates are variable but must be no later than five years from the previous election. Consider a prisoner who is due for release one day after a general election. If he had not been entitled to vote that means that for up to five years as a free man he never had a say in who governed him.  This, to me, is unfair.  Even if one feels that a prisoner who is serving, as an example, 20 years, should have no right to vote in elections at the beginning and middle of his sentence, because for the full electoral term he will be in prison and has no rights to say who governs him, that does not mean to say that he should have no rights to say who governs him as a free man.

If this argument is accepted by people who feel that prisoners should have no right to say who govern them while in prison, then they might argue for fractions of  votes for prisoners.  This fraction is more difficult to calculate as elections are not on fixed dates, but one would be biasing in favour of the prisoner, who would therefore have no grounds for complaint, if the full five years are assumed between elections. In simple terms, if a prisoner is due for release one year after a general election, then their vote weight should be reduced by 1/5. In other words, their vote is counted as 80% of the vote of someone who is free for the full term. As an another example, if someone is due for release 3 years after a general election then their vote weight should be reduced by 3/5 and their vote would count for 40% of a normal vote.

There is an obvious objection to this based on a contradiction. This is to do with minors. Similar logic could be used to suggest that a 14 year old should get 20% of a vote and a 16 year old 60% of a vote etc., with the calculation based on how many years they will be aged 18 or over through the electoral cycle. I would reject this argument. The reason a 16 year old cannot vote is not the same reason as why an adult prisoner cannot vote. The 16 year old is deemed not mature enough to make a decision and if that is the case, he is equally not mature enough to make a 60% decision as a 100% decision. A prisoner does not have the right to vote as it is a right that is taken away from him. Hence I see the two cases as different.

Incidentally, there is an inbuilt compensation at the end of the life to a 16 year not having a say in who governs him for period of the electoral cycle when he is 18 or over. This is that he will be given a full vote (assuming he is over 18) in the last general election prior to his death. His final vote will therefore encompass a period when he is no longer alive and people who are no longer alive have no right to vote – even by proxy.

An objection to this argument, more valid, in my mind, is this: consider a general election was held the day before a criminal is sent to prison for say 3 years. For the full length of his prison sentence (unless there is an early election for any reason) the prisoner will have had a say in who governed him while in prison. His vote is not retroactively reduced by 60% and nor could it realistically happen. Hence some prisoners have a say on who governs them while in prison. If  some prisoners are able to vote to determine who governs them while in prison,  in my opinion all prisoners should be able to do so. I see no reason why it should make a difference if the sentence is a short or a long one. By this argument, prisoners should be allowed to vote and be provided a full vote.


Lamenting Stalin

In Apologists for terror, From the Vaults, Stalin, U.K. Left on May 29, 2012 at 12:30 PM

Denis Nowell Pritt (D.N. Pritt) was a British barrister and had been a Labour Party member of Parliament in the 1930s. However, his true loyalty was to the Soviet Union and specifically to Joseph Stalin. The Anglo-Soviet Journal, as might be able to be guessed from its title, specialised in publishing pro-Soviet propaganda. Stalin died on March 5, 1953 and this must have been a sad day for Pritt and those associated with The Anglo-Soviet Journal. The honour of writing Stalin’s obituary was given to Pritt. It was published on pages 2-3 of the March 1953 issue. I copy below an extract from that obituary.



WHAT do members of the Society for Cultural Relations, with their particular interest in cultural developments in the USSR, and in cultural relations between the peoples of our two countries, owe to the great Joseph Stalin? His death is mourned, and his varied triumphs are gratefully praised, by hundreds of millions all over the world, from many aspects and for many reasons….

Others have thanked him for carrying the building of the Socialist state to the threshold of communism, for his great share in the military defeat of fascism, for the strength and richness he has brought to the prosperous, peace-loving new world. It is our special privilege to record with gratitude the new conception he has given to the world of the value of the human being, of the dignity of man, and of the wide cultural and educational development based on Socialist security….

So we say: Thank you, Joseph Stalin, for the cultural human development, for the conscious purposeful humanism that you have brought to the lives of all who have eyes to see, minds to understand, and hearts to rejoice. We and our fellow men have, of course, many, many more achievements than that for which to thank you; but for that alone our gratitude is so full that there can never be words enough to express it. We will thank you more truly with our deeds, by working for and helping to build, on the foundations you have taught us to understand, for ourselves and all others, a world of peace and growing culture.

While I only copied an extract, I can assure readers that in the remainder of the obituary there was no mention of the millions upon millions of deaths that occurred in the Soviet Union, the responsibility for which can be laid at Stalin’s door. In 1954, the year after this obituary was published, its author, D.N. Pritt, was awarded the International Stalin Prize for Strengthening Peace Among Peoples.

From the Vaults: Salisbury Young Liberals, September 1967

In From the Vaults, Trotskyism on May 28, 2012 at 8:00 AM

This is a cross post from Harry’s Place where it was originally published on May 25th 2012, 10:00 pm.

A reader, who wishes to remain anonymous, located in the vaults and kindly sent in a copy of the Young Liberal Songbook from September 1967. They correctly assessed that I would find it of interest. I copy below a song from that book ridiculing the Labour Party for a perceived inability to get rid of Trotskyist infiltrators. “Harold” was the then prime minister and Leader of the Labour Party, Harold Wilson. “George” was the then Foreign Secretary and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, George Brown. I hope some of you are amused as I was.


Tune: There’s a Hole in My Bucket

There’s a Trot in our party, dear Harold, dear Harold,
There’s a Trot in our party, dear Harold, a Trot.
Then expel him dear George, dear George, dear George.
With what shall I expel him, dear Harold, dear Harold?
With a block vote, dear George, dear George, dear George.
And where shall I find it, dear Harold, dear Harold?
In the unions, dear George, dear George, dear George.
But union leaders are elected, dear Harold, dear Harold.
Then rig the elections, dear George, dear George.
With what shall I rig them, dear Harold, dear Harold?
With Catholic action, dear George, dear George, dear George.
And where shall I find it, dear Harold, dear Harold?
In Glasgow, dear George, dear George, dear George.
But that’s where the Trots are, dear Harold, dear Harold.


Mary Green and Michael Steed (compilers), After The Count Was Over: Young Liberal Song Book, (Salisbury Young Liberals, September 1967), p2.

From the Vaults: Tribune – January 12, 1973

In From the Vaults on May 19, 2012 at 7:12 PM

I copy below an extract from an advertisement that appeared on page 6 of Tribune, January 12, 1973:



By Donald Catchlove

The first biography in English of Nicolae Ceausescu. Published to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Romanian Republic. Donald Catchlove assesses with clarity and insight Ceausescu’s significant role in contemporary history, and the qualities that have made him a major figure in international diplomacy, thought by some to be a possible future candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Lavishly illustrated…


He never did win the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Perdition Affair

In Anti-Zionism, Antisemitism, From the Vaults, Israel, Trotskyism on May 17, 2012 at 6:41 PM

In 1987 a debate occurred in public sphere on a play written Jim Allen, someone who had previously been associated with Gerry Healy’s organisation the Socialist Labour League, a forerunner to the WRP.  The play was called Perdition and was in the genre of faction, a fictional play with historical facts brought in. The historical facts in this case was that of the Zionist leaders in Hungary during the Holocaust and of Zionism in general during the 1930s and 1940s. The play was loosely based on the Kasztner trial that occurred in Israel in the 1950s.

Allen was quoted in Time Out, (January 21-28, 1987) declaring the play:

the most lethal attack on Zionism ever written, because it touches on the heart of the most abiding myth of modern history, the Holocaust. Because it says quite plainly that privileged Jewish leaders collaborated in the extermination of their own kind in order to bring about a Zionist state, Israel, a state which is itself racist.

The play was due to be shown at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs but was pulled by the theatre in January 1987 shortly before public previews were due to go ahead. The Artistic Director, Max Stafford Clark, had lost confidence in the play. But this was not before there had been a storm of controversy played out in the press and as a result of meetings that had occurred between the theatre and the play’s critics. Critics had accused the play of distorting the history of the Holocaust and of antisemitism.

One of the more interesting polemical exchanges on the play was in a few issues of the Trotskyist magazine Workers’ Liberty, the magazine of the organisation Socialist Organiser, the forerunner to today’s Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL). The reason for this post is that the AWL have recently published the debate on their website.  Sean Matgamna, writing under his pen name, John O’Mahony, wrote the initial article attacking the play. In two subsequent issues there was an exchange between Matgmana and the anti-Zionist activist Tony Greenstein. The Engage web site has linked to this debate and a discussion is under way where both I and my good friend Paul Bogdanor have commented.

For those interested in either the anti-Zionism from the far-left in the UK or in portrayals of the Kasztner affair, then an understanding of this play and the controversy that ensued is useful. One of the more important debates on the play was a televised debate on March 18, 1987 for Channel 4’s Diverse Reports. A recording of this programme has been uploaded to the Internet and can be seen below:

Selling the Nazi Flag

In Far Right, Free Market, Freedom of Expression on May 16, 2012 at 7:16 PM

This is a cross post of the main part of a post originally posted at Harry’s Place on May 16th 2012, 7:55 pm

The Independent is currently running a debate on the selling of Nazi flags.

The problem I wish to highlight is the actual question up for debate. The headline of the article poses the question: “Should Amazon be selling Nazi flags?” Yet, in the article, the introduction poses the “crucial question” as follows: “should flags that represent a racist and offensive ideology be up for sale?” These are two different questions. If the second one is the actual question that John Rentoul and Matthew Bell were posed, then the question is not worded in a way that makes it clear what is exactly being asked. Does it mean that Nazi flags should be banned from sale or does it mean that businesses should freely choose not to sell Nazi flags? The lack of clarity in the question does not make answering it with a simple “for” or “against” easy. Finally, at the end of the article, a third variant is posed: “do Independent readers agree or disagree with the sale of new Nazi flags?”

John Rentoul answers “For” but without knowing the question it is unclear to what. He certainly seems to be for the sale of Nazi flags and suggesting that the sale be ridiculed. However, he does not discuss Amazon as an outlet for their sale. What he actually says is this:

It is easily mockable that Amazon lists Mein Kampf as something “frequently bought together” with a swastika flag, but once someone suggests banning the sale of books, we can surely see that a line has been crossed into curtailing freedom of expression.

The implication from this sentence is that either Amazon sells the flags or the sale of the flag is banned. This is not the answer I would give. What I would say is that there is no curtailing of freedom of expression by Amazon not selling the flags: the flag manufacturer would have every right to advertise the flags on its own web site and sell them there or they could try and locate a different retailer for the vile product. And, indeed, this is my position: I would not ban the flags from being sold but I would hope that retailers such as Amazon refused to facilitate their sale.

Matthew Bell has also answered the question for the Independent and his answer to the mysterious question is “Against.” But what he is actually against, I am not sure, and nor, it seems, is Norman Geras. Bell ends his contribution as follows:  ”[D]o we want to live in a society where you can pick up a new, giant swastika flag with your weekly shop? Probably not.” But he declares earlier: “And as with any other trade, making it illegal won’t make it go away, it just pushes it underground.”

From the Vaults: Auberon Waugh on the WRP

In From the Vaults, Trotskyism on May 15, 2012 at 7:00 AM

Of all the Trotskyist groups that have existed in the UK, none can be quite so strange, quite so cultish, and quite so odd as Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP). Whether or not one agreed with his political views, I suspect many would concur that the late Auberon Waugh was a wonderful columnist.  In 1976 he described the WRP in a column for the Spectator. I copy that description below:

[T]he Workers Revolutionary Party…only seems to cater for people of limited intelligence whose various personality disorders include a paranoid distrust of the media. Perhaps, at the back of their minds, there is also a dim awareness of how horrible they look, with their staring eyes and fanatical white faces, and even how ridiculous they sound in any company but their own.

Source: Auberon Waugh, “Poles apart,” Spectator, June 26, 1976, p7.

From the Vaults: Workers Power, September, 1979

In From the Vaults, IRA, Northern Ireland, Trotskyism on May 7, 2012 at 9:36 PM

On August 14, 1979 Lord Louis Mountbatten, a cousin of the Queen, together with his grandson and another young person were murdered in an act of terrorism. The IRA remotely detonated a  bomb on the boat they were on. The country was in shock. As the BBC reported about Lord Mountbatten’s funeral, “Thousands lined the route of the procession and the memorial service at Westminster Abbey was attended by royalty, leaders and politicians from all over the world.”  But this was not the view of the Trotskyist organisation, Workers Power. Below I copy a front page unsigned article written in an editorial style from their newspaper. Despite the fact that this act of terrorism occurred over 32 years ago, it is still truly sickening to read.

Don’t mourn Mountbatten

Workers Power, No. 8, September, 1979, p1.

LORD MOUNTBATTEN OF BURMA, at various times the First Sea Lord, Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia and Viceroy of India, was not merely a titled member of the parasitical Windsor Dynasty. Workers should know him for what he was – an intelligent and resourceful militant of British Imperialism in the long period of its decline from first to third or fourth rate power.

It is ironic that he fell a casualty of the latest war to which that dogged and bloody retreat gave rise. He died at the hands of forces seeking to liberate Ireland from the malign power that condemns’ Irish men, women and children to the persistent harra ssment of an army of occupation. To suffer SAS secret assassination  squads, the imprisonment and torture of those seeking to protect their own people and to expel the oppressors.

It is, of course, part of the propaganda of successive British governments to criminalise these freedom fighters, to deny that there is war being fought in Ireland. So said their predecessors in India, Cyprus and Kenya.

As Marxists, and not nationalists, we have a different view of the tactics to be employed to end the oppression of Ireland. The killing of a retired ruling class militant, member of the royal family etc., will enrage the ruling class, but it will not injure or weaken it. Indeed, such actions, carried out by a highly secret military formation and unrelated to the mass action and involvement of the working class in both Northern and Southern Ireland, will provoke repression without preparing the forces to deal with [unclear].

The successful attack on the paratroops, whose regiment murdered fourteen unarmed civilians in Derry in 1972 is, however, doubly defensible. Only rabid pro·imperialists and their Fleet Street hirelings can condemn it.

Of course it is personally tragic for the friends and families of working class boys driven into the Army by unemployment and set to die in Ireland. But there is only one solution. Get the troops out NOW. ‘But’, scream the Labourite politicians as well as the Tories, ‘That would be a victory for the IRA.’ So it would be. It would be a victory for every working class person in Britain as well.


In From the Vaults, Intellectuals on May 2, 2012 at 8:00 AM

In the middle of November 1997 a slanging match between John le Carré and Salman Rushdie raged across the letters pages of the Guardian. This row followed an article printed in the newspaper where le Carré complained that he had been accused of anti-Semitism. Rushdie was not amused. He reminded readers that le Carré had failed to support him when he was sentenced to death by the Iranians and hence would not receive his sympathy. The argument that ensued became increasingly vituperative and it set the literary world abuzz. Below I copy an extract from Rushdie’s magnificent final volley.

If he wants to win an argument, John le Carré could begin by learning to read…. It’s true I did call him a pompous ass, which I thought pretty mild in the circumstances. “Ignorant” and “semi-literate” are dunces’ caps he has skillfully fitted on his own head. I wouldn’t dream of removing them.

Le Carré’s habit of giving himself good reviews (“my thoughtful and well-received speech”) was no doubt developed because, well, somebody has to write them. He accuses me of not having done the same for myself. “Rushdie,”  says the dunce, “does not deny he insulted a’ great world religion.” I have no intention of repeating yet again my many explications of The Satanic Verses, a novel of which I remain extremely proud. A novel, Mr. le Carré, not a gibe.You know what a novel is, don’t you, John?

Salman Rushdie


“Letters to the editor,” Guardian, November 22, 1997, p22.