In “A Change is Gonna Come”, which became one of the defining songs of the US civil rights movement in the 1960s, Sam Cooke confidently proclaimed change had been a long time coming but was on its way. Five decades later the sentiments are still relevant. Campaigning for change can take many years but lasting the course, sticking to your core asks and keeping a campaign prominent can all lead to change.
This has certainly true for the campaign to get convicted prisoners in the UK the vote – a campaign which led to the Government finally indicating this week it will extend voting rights to prisoners. It is a campaign dear to my heart as I laid the foundations for it back in 1997 as an idealistic postgraduate student, full of ideas and energy, but with no idea it would take 13 years – about the time a life sentence prisoner serves in jail – to bring about change.
Stumbling across a single sentence in a text book that said prisoners couldn’t vote I threw myself into understanding why the ban existed (it was a historical relic dating back to 1870 when voting was just for elites), what happened elsewhere (most European countries allowed prisoners to vote) and whether it had an impact on MPs taking an interest in prison issues (it did – many MPs with a prison in their constituency had never visited it). Interviewing MPs as part of my dissertation including Anne Widdecombe, then better known as a formidable former Prisons Minister than for her Paso Doble on Strictly Come Dancing, it became apparent that few politicians had considered whether prisoners should have the vote.
I was then able to persuade a charity, the Prison Reform Trust, to let me take forward work on this issue, initially by writing a briefing paper, and then when I later went to work for them. By the time I left the charity in 2002 we had gained support from two national newspapers, the Prisons Inspector, the head of the Prison Service, the UN Human Rights Committee, prisoners and cross-party MPs and Peers. We also set up a High Court test case to challenge the ban. Although this was unsuccessful it was the catalyst for another case that eventually led to the European Court of Human Rights ruling the UK Government’s ban unlawful – and ultimately to this week’s announcement. And throughout the last decade prison reform charities have not let up from calling for reform.
All charities should take heart from successful campaigns such as the one to get prisoners the vote. Campaigning may not be easy or quick but the voluntary sector can be at the heart of building support for reform. That is why at the Refugee Council, as we approach our 60th anniversary next year, we will not let up from making the case for the changes we know are needed – changes that may not always initially be widely supported, but which we know could make a real difference.