Archive for category Crime

Dunfermline athletics long game to kick off for Green goals

elephantbridgeCara Hilton is now firmly ensconced in Holyrood after what turned out to be a reasonable majority in the Dunfermline by-election. Her victory was assured using a scattergun approach to campaigning that entailed being selective about what Scottish Labour’s current policy platform says and relying heavily on ‘I’m no SNP, so I must be Labour’ identity politics.

I know this because I was responsible in part for organising Zara Kitson’s campaign for the Greens and saw it all unfold before me first hand. How do you fight half-truths with truth when nobody recognises the legitimacy of what you are saying? On that same note it would take a Scottish Labour spin doctor to dress the Greens’ result up as a victory, but neither was it the disaster some naysayers made out.

Looking at the question of legitimacy, I was rather disappointed with Brian Taylor for lending his voice to a piece beginning ‘Meanwhile, the Greens had an environmental message’. The clip took one quote from Zara Kitson and pretended it was a manifesto. Had the BBC checked their own footage they would have found hours of interviews with the Green candidate in which she talked about local democracy, the bedroom tax, community football, properly funded schools and well-paid jobs. I know because I was there when it was filmed.
Perhaps it serves the Greens right for running an honest campaign in which they attempted to talk about what needed to be talked about. Zara Kitson made no promises about bridge tolls she would never have individual control over or the policies of a council she would not sit on. Should the Greens have followed the UKIP route and ploughed money (but precious few activists) into the kind of bitter, dishonest and intellectually bankrupt reactionary politics designed to garner as many votes as possible on as little policy as can be inserted into a leaflet made on the 1997 version of Microsoft Publisher? Probably not.

UKIP’s voters will have gone and voted and then retired to their armchairs or slipped their driving gloves back on and taken a ride out in their Saab 95 to check there were still no wind turbines. The Green voters, however, were part of a planned-out process of capacity building and a strategy that went beyond securing votes and getting back on the motorway to Edinburgh or London. This was misconstrued by the BBC on election night when they quoted Zara Kitson saying ‘it had been all about the campaigning’. She did not just mean that it was the taking part that counted; this was a longer battle than the media were prepared to accept in their finite narrative.

The interesting thing about the Green vote in Dunfermline is that nobody had ever been given the chance to elect a constituency MSP before, and the group of people who did choose to vote Green were galvanised by the election into knowing that there were hundreds of people across the area like them. Were Holyrood by-elections contested using the AV system the results could have been radically different. First past the post traps people into tactical voting and creates the same two-party politics that dominates Westminster.  It is almost inevitable that the end result will be hastily printed flyers with big pictures of bridges on and wild promises that can never be kept and will never need to be kept.

It is about the illusion of localism and the belief that constituency MSPs are local leaders, rather than parliamentary legislators. Even more so, the first past the post element of the Scottish electoral system perpetuates the kind of thinking that Holyrood was supposed to leave behind. Why it cannot be replaced with sixteen smaller regions electing lists is a question we should probably all be asking ourselves. Local government should perhaps be left to local government and we should not pretend that Cara Hilton or any other MSP has the ability to change things by themselves.

Any such reform would also present a challenge for the Greens, it has to be recognised. There is very little data showing whether people first vote Green and then opt for a constituency candidate of their choice or whether the reverse is true.  The BBC did not help, but what Zara Kitson tried to do in Dunfermline and will no doubt do again in the future was show that Green votes are not second preferences but first steps toward something altogether different. We need an election system that liberates people to vote freely and demands that smaller parties ready themselves for government.

Denying prisoners the vote: who benefits?

Prison votingWhy would any politician want to deny prisoners the vote? Is it purely because they think it plays well with the less liberal parts of the media (i.e. almost all of it)? Or might there be a better reason? There are all sorts of rationales for the use of prison in the justice system. Are any of them consistent with denying prisoners the franchise as well as their liberty?

1. Public safety. This is the most important one for me. If someone has grievously breached society’s proper moral codes – by which I mean typically premeditated or serious offences against the person – I support using prison to protect society. Why, at the top end of those offences, should the innocent public be exposed to the risk of a repeat offence? I prefer the risk that someone who might actually never offend again still doesn’t get out. You hopefully know the sort of offences I mean here.

So does denying prisoners a vote protect the public? Hardly. What risk is there to the public of further crime from prisoners simply voting? Essentially it’s the same as the threat posed to a mixed-sex married couple by their same-sex neighbours getting married, i.e. none. What’s more, it’s hard to see how they could change anything substantial electorally. There are just over 8,000 prisoners in Scottish jails. A little over 100 per constituency. If they all voted they’d make up 0.4% of the Scottish electorate. A poll I can’t find suggested prisoners would be more likely to vote BNP than the rest of us – and it may not be surprising to turn it on its head and say that BNP voters are more likely to commit crimes – but that’s not a reason to prevent all prisoners voting.

2. Rehabilitation. This is an area where the theory and practice of imprisonment seem miles apart, but can barring prisoners from voting really help them turn their lives around, prepare them for life outside, and reduce reoffending? Actually, the evidence is quite the opposite. It doesn’t seem realistic to say allowing prisoners a vote would have a major impact, but it might have some.

3. Deterrence/retribution. Shall we agree that even the most hardened political hack wouldn’t be put off from committing a crime because of the loss of the franchise? It’s hardly an enormous punishment when you’ve already been deprived of your liberty.

4. Restitution. Nothing here either (cf community services, repayment of stolen money). No victim sees any practical benefit from an offender being denied a ballot.

The best the no-vote side are left with (at Holyrood this means the SNP, Labour and the Tories), as far as I can see, is a reference to some abstract moral principle – that prisoners must forgo any contribution to deciding society’s future, and that when they’ve “paid their debt” they can take part again, irrespective of the absence of any practical benefit to society. It’s precisely the kind of vague and unfalsifiable pseudo-moral hand-waving and hand-wringing certain sections of the media love.

So, conversely, why should we let them vote? First, the minor rehabilitation effects noted above. Many repeat offenders already feel alienated from society, disenfranchised in more ways than one. Do we really want to tell people, especially those who will be released, that society thinks their views are irrelevant? I’d like to believe that allowing prisoners to vote might encourage politicians to consider their views on prison conditions, but the small number of these potential voters (versus the influence of the populist press) makes that unlikely.

Above all, though, we’re meant to be a democracy. If we start going down this road we end up with the approach some American states take, whereby felons are barred from voting forever. We live in a discriminatory society, with a justice system more inclined to prosecute and imprison the poor or protesters than so-called “white collar criminals”, and preventing prisoners from having a say extends this discrimination further for no real benefit. Democracies let their citizens vote, not just the approved subset of the population. It shouldn’t take the European courts to make our governments honour this principle.

Arming bears would make more sense now

8293886881_9e189768e2_oThe gun debate in America rages on, with the NRA’s spokesman giving a speech today, just one week after the massacre at Sandy Hook, a tone-deaf speech even by their standards. While he was speaking, a gunman in Pennsylvania shot three others and then (we believe) himself. So what can be done to deliver gun control?

Some people think a reinterpretation of the commas in the Second Amendment can save America. To remind you:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Current rulings make the first part about a militia and its purpose merely “prefatory”, i.e. irrelevant context, with the part starting “the right” being “operative”. Others think the commas are a well-armed red herring, and considering the framers’ intentions might be more productive.

Neither is unlikely to help any time soon. Neither the current Supreme Court, nor any Supreme Court imaginable in the next decade, is likely to accept any kind of more radical ban on guns with the Second Amendment still unchallenged.

It’s time for America’s progressives to make a real push on a different front: abolishing the Second Amendment altogether. As Walter Shapiro says, it’d take just 15 words: “The second article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.”

It’d be absurd to suggest that’d be easy, or even realistic any time soon. Even to get a 28th Amendment proposed takes either two thirds of the Senate and the House or two thirds of state legislatures. That’s hard. Then 38 states need to ratify it. That’s even harder.

The polling trend has been heading in the wrong direction, although there’s been a bit of a shift after the most recent outrage. But (as Shapiro again observes) opinions have changed radically on issues like equal marriage, and the fact that it might take 15 or 20 years doesn’t mean the job shouldn’t be begun. It means ignoring Alex Massie’s unusually siren argument that it’s hard to do so it shouldn’t be done in case someone takes away rights you care about. It would get round the concerns about democracy in the otherwise sensible Lexington blogpost.

Those equal marriage wins took some serious strategic thinking to deliver in four states this November, too: can the same techniques be applied here? After all, frustrating and unequal as the reservation of marriage for heterosexual couples is, it’s not in the same league as being shot in your classroom.

(pic from Code Pink)

Heaton-Harris and Delingpole referred to Northants police for possible breach of electoral law

The Guardian’s splash today is eye-catching. Greenpeace, masquerading as the gloriously named Windefensible (shades of Chris Morris’s Nonce Sense), covertly recorded Chris Heaton-Harris MP making extraordinary admissions.

He set out a covert plan to pretend to run the Telegraph’s science-denial correspondent James Delingpole as a candidate, only to have him withdraw before putting his nomination in and to endorse the Tories. This scheme was designed to mislead the electors of Corby and to skew Tory party policy, and Delingpole played his role perfectly.

On one level, it’s funny, and they got caught before election day. On another, though, it’s extremely serious and potentially illegal.

The fact that Delingpole didn’t file doesn’t exempt them both from electoral law, especially Heaton-Harris, who as the Tories’ agent is effectively acting with the party’s authority.

How can a candidate be involved in electoral fraud when they don’t stand? Before we come to the law, the principle isn’t hard to understand. Let’s do a totally hypothetical example. Let’s say a leftish party of government faced a by-election after becoming involved in a war. If their rightwing opponents faked up an anti-war candidate to attack the government candidate from the left (in a way they couldn’t themselves, assuming they supported the war) that could be assumed to depress left turnout for the government candidate. Conversely, the governing party in that example could fake up an anti-war candidate, then have them fold just before nominations closed and get them to endorse the leftish candidate.

It’s fraud, essentially.

I’m no expert in electoral law, but there are at least two other offences potentially involved here, both as part of the 1983 Representation of the People Act. Were any donations made to Delingpole’s campaign by Conservatives? Section 71A on the control of donations may apply here if so. More obviously, Section 107 covers the “corrupt withdrawal from candidature”. Beyond that, false statements may have been made under the terms of Section 106, the section Phil Woolas was convicted under.

Update: it’s been pointed out to me by legal blogger @loveandgarbage that §118A of the 1983 Act confirms that a person becomes a candidate for the purposes of the Act no later than “the day on which he is so declared by himself or by others“, which Delingpole has clearly done, and is not dependent on the filing of nomination papers, payment of a deposit etc. That exposes Delingpole to far more of the Act’s restrictions, and may broaden the offences that need to be considered.

Anyway, I’ve asked the local police to sort it out. Letter below.

Hello all at Northants Police,
I note the Guardian’s cover story today about the covert arrangements between Chris Heaton-Harris MP, the Conservative Party’s agent in the Corby by-election, and James Delingpole, Telegraph columnist and putative candidate. I’m sure you’ll be familiar with the article and the film it’s based upon, but if not, it’s here:

It appears that both Mr Heaton-Harris and Mr Delingpole may have breached electoral law, including potentially sections 71A and 107 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. The former covers control of donations to candidates (depending on whether the donations mentioned were actually made to Mr Delingpole), and the second covers corrupt withdrawal from candidature.

Further offences of dishonesty may also have been committed specifically by Mr Heaton-Harris by his support for an apparently competitive candidacy, a candidacy we now know to have been devised by Conservative members and activists in order to skew both the election and party policy (the latter intention not being covered by electoral law).

Please can you let me know what action you might take with regard to these potential offences?

James Mackenzie

Let’s do something to stop the Glasgow subway photo ban

Thanks to Caron Lindsay for today’s guest post. Caron’s a Lib Dem activist, she blogs at Caron’s Musings and at Lib Dem Voice, and she’s here on Twitter.

So, you’re on the Glasgow subway with some friends and one of them does something cute or funny or otherwise worth recording for posterity. You take out your phone to capture the moment…..

What should happen next is….nothing. Life should go on as normal. However, if Strathclyde Partnership for Transport gets its way, new bye-laws could mean that you’re on a slippery slope to a £1000 fine. The operator has put their new proposals out for consultation and they include the controversial clause 12.1:

Passengers must not take photographs, or make video audio or visual recordings on any part of the subway.

There is a get out clause – but it involves you obtaining the written permission of SPT in advance. So much for spontaneity.

This brings to mind the situation under the last Labour Westminster Government when amateur photographers were apprehended by police under the controversial Section 44 of the Terrorism Act. This report from the Independent summarises how people innocently taking photographs of public buildings, tourist attractions and even a fish and chip shop found themselves being stopped and searched. By and large, although the law applied in Scotland, it was largely ignored. I wrote in 2010 that while over 200,000 people had been stopped south of the border, only 79 searches had been recorded here.

I always tend to take the view that if an authority is given a power, it will use it. That’s why we need to make sure that any powers they have are both necessary and proportionate. Why, then, do SPT want this photo ban? According to Amateur Photographer, SPT said:

Our company policy has always been that consent must be sought prior to any photography taking place, and this is in line with security restrictions at any major transport hub, including railway stations, airports etc.

It also allows us to ensure that any such activity does not disrupt the operations of the network in any way.

How on earth the group of friends in my example could potentially disrupt the operation of the network in any way is beyond me.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie was quick to condemn the proposals:

Whichever bright spark came up with this needs to be told to drop it. This kind of nonsense distracts from the real fight against crime and terrorism.

We have seen what happened in the past under the old Labour government. People were  arrested under terrorism laws for wearing t-shirts lampooning Tony Blair or for shouting ‘nonsense’ at a conference. Strathclyde needs some strong liberal voices to shout ‘nonsense’ at this plan.

On Twitter, Education Secretary Mike Russell described the plan as “Utterly daft.”

I’m sure that many people who aren’t involved in politics will agree that this restriction is ridiculous.

It doesn’t have to be this way

Happily, there is something we can do about this. If you agree with me and the many others on Twitter yesterday who thought the proposal is a piece of nonsense, you can respond to the consultation on it and the rest of the bye-laws by 15th June.

The photography ban is only the tip of the iceberg. Some of the other proposed  bye-laws, also carrying a potential £1000 fine for their breach, are equally questionable. Failing to report lost property to a member of staff, singing, using musical equipment in a way which might annoy a reasonable person, being drunk (which isn’t defined, but may well apply to a fair few people taking the subway home on a weekend night) or going the wrong way up or down an escalator all carry the same penalty. So does trying to get on a train before the last person has left and trying to jump the queue. These things can be rude, but deserving of a four figure fine?

Truly dangerous acts, like going onto the track, have the same penalty as the petty, which is a ridiculous state of affairs.

Have a read of the proposed rules here and make sure you send your response to the consultation by 15th June. It needs to go to:

FAO: Joanne Gray
Glasgow Subway Byelaws Consultation
Transport Policy Directorate
Area 2 D North
Victoria Quay

or e-mail joanneDOTgrayATtransportscotlandDOTgsiDOTgovDOTuk

Subway Snap-In

Such authoritarian proposals are crying out to have fun poked at them. A few of us were discussing on Twitter yesterday that we should encourage everyone to take as many photos as they can on the subway over the next few weeks and post them on Twitter, using #subwaysnapin. I’ve created a Facebook page as well. Be as creative as you can. Add in a campaign slogan or placard if you like, but let’s show off a Glasgow institution at its best.

(photo credit)