Over the course of the BrExpats research project, my project team and I have been looking closely at how and when British citizens living overseas feature in UK parliamentary debates. The overseas vote is one of the few issues where UK citizens living overseas find themselves the explicit focus of UK parliamentary debate.
Indeed, the previous two Conservative manifestos have offered to extend the right to vote from its current 15-year limit to a vote for life for these Britons. And yet, with less than a week to go until GE2019, many Britons living in the EU27, whose rights are being transformed through Brexit, do not have the right to vote.
A (very brief) history of the overseas vote
Franchise in UK parliamentary elections was only extended to UK nationals living abroad in 1985, when the Representation of the People Act specified who would qualify as an ‘overseas elector’.
This limited the right to vote to those who had been previously resident in the UK—and thus on the electoral register—and placed a five-year limit on this right. And while the time limit was extended to 20 years in 1989, this was reduced to the current 15 year limit in 2002.
Overseas voters are registered to their previous parliamentary constituency in the UK.
Over the last four years, the overseas vote has been debated extensively on the floor of the House of Commons, first through the Overseas Voters Bill 2015-16, and then through the Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19.
Established as a Private Members’ Bill (albeit with government support), the latter was filibustered, or talked out, by the Conservative MP Philip Davies, on 22 March 2019.
Nonetheless, the debates that took place in the House of Commons about both these bills offer important insights into who ‘the people’ are that the UK Parliament believes it represents, and how British citizens living abroad are regularly judged as beyond the demos.
This 15-year limit means that many British citizens living in the EU27, those whose rights are being transformed by the Brexit negotiations, will be without a say in the forthcoming general election. And it is clear that they care about this.
One of the most regular topics of conversation that comes up in our interviews with UK nationals living across the EU has been their voting rights in the UK. Brexit was a wake-up call as many of those seeking to register to participate in the 2016 referendum found that they were denied the vote.
Since then, there has been a heightened awareness of the time limitation on the overseas vote and renewed activism around the vote for life.
At a very rough estimate, up to two-thirds of this population could be disenfranchised as a result, even though decisions about taxation on their UK pensions, assets and other income, and of course their future rights through Brexit, are still made by UK Parliament.
How UK citizens in the EU27 are responding to the 2019 general election
Between 24 October (when the election was called) & 26 November 2019, 132,048 British citizens abroad registered to vote. This is significant when set within the context that before 2015 the total number of overseas voters registered had never risen above 35,000.
This latest increase contributes to the broader swelling of registrations from voters living overseas that commenced in the lead up to the EU referendum and which had reached record levels of 285,000 at the time of GE2017. The increase is due to a combination of factors including a renewed interest in UK parliamentary politics because of Brexit and the introduction of online voter registration.
For those overseas voters registered to vote, there has an active push to encourage them to use proxy votes because they don’t trust the alternative: the postal ballot system.
Throughout the research we have heard reports of ballots for the referendum, for GE2017, for the recent European Parliamentary elections, not arrive on time or at all.
And for those who can’t vote? Many of them are drawing attention to the disenfranchisement of British citizens living overseas, but also encouraging people to value their vote and use it wisely.
The future of the overseas vote
Three major parties have something to say about the overseas vote in their manifesto.
The Conservatives pledge to ‘make it easier for British expats to vote in parliamentary elections, and get rid of the arbitrary 15-year limit on their voting rights’ (and it’s notable that this is similar in content to their previous (undelivered) pledges).
Labour do not include the overseas vote in their considerations of voter reform in the UK, but do mention that they ‘will ensure that the pensions of UK citizens living overseas rise in line with pensions in Britain’.
Finally, the Liberal Democrats include an explicit pledge to ‘enable all UK citizens living abroad to vote for MPs in separate overseas constituencies, and to participate in UK referendums.’
How does this position us in relation to other nations and their inclusion (or not) of their overseas citizens in the democratic process? And why does this matter?
Our nearest neighbours offer two contrasting examples on the inclusion of overseas voters in national democratic processes. While France offers extends lifetime enfranchisement to its citizens living overseas and dedicated political representation, Ireland removes right to vote from its emigrants from day one.
Citizenship per se does not equal the right to vote.
Britain is an emigration nation: we have consistently had one of the highest emigration rates in the world. And yet, we have no emigration policy, and no dedicated representation of overseas citizens.
All in all, the interests of overseas UK citizens are nowhere near the public policy agenda. This is very unusual compared to other countries with large diaspora populations.
As our research over the course of the Brexit negotiations has shown, it seems to be a case of out of sight, out of mind.
By Dr Michaela Benson, research lead at The UK in a Changing Europe for the project BrExpats and Reader in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.