Heather Harper is Chairman of Conservatives Abroad.
Conservatives Abroad are today celebrating victory as Grant Shapps announced a manifesto commitment to abolish the rule which prevents British expats from voting in the UK after they have lived abroad for more than 15 years.
We are the only party to have made such a pledge. And, although it may mean little to those who don’t live abroad, it is hugely significant for the 5.6 million British expats.
Britain is one of only five countries in the European Union to have such a rule along with Ireland, Denmark, Malta and Cyprus. The rule, introduced by Labour in 2002, has frozen hundreds of thousands of British people out of the electoral system.
The Conservatives is now the only party committed to giving Britons abroad the right to vote in UK elections.
This is the first major step to appealing to this huge vote for 2015. Currently, around 3.5 million Britons living abroad are entitled to vote in UK national and European elections. And we believe that the majority of these are Conservative voters. Yet in 2010 just 32,729 registered to vote. That’s less than 1 per cent.
To put that into perspective, 32,729 is an average of 50 votes in each of the 650 parliamentary constituencies. But if we met the registration rate of the UK (84 per cent in 2010) that would be an average of 4,523 extra votes per constituency.
Mobilising that vote would make a big difference to the 2015 election.
So why is it that so few expats bother to vote? Partly it’s because of the relative difficulty in registering to vote and actually voting. The 15 year rule is the main concern here.
Under Labour’s 2002 legislation, anyone living abroad for more than 15 years loses their right to vote in the UK. Effectively, we become unrepresented since, as British citizens, we can’t vote in national elections abroad.
Yet many of us still pay taxes in the UK, have pensions in the UK and are hugely proud of being British. A lot of us are working abroad and plan to return to the UK. We feel it is both our right and our duty to vote in British elections. We want our views to be valued and we want to be included in the British political process
Conservatives Abroad has been leading the campaign to scrap the 15 year rule and now we have a firm and unique manifesto commitment.
The announcement will please 93-year-old World War II veteran Harry Schindler, who has lived in Italy for 30 years. In 2014 he received the MBE for his tireless work preserving the memories of the actions of British soldiers who lost their lives fighting in Italy during the war. Conservatives Abroad has been supporting his campaign which he has taken right up to the European Court of Human Rights.
His only concern, at 93, is that we should bring legislation forward to allow all expats to vote in 2015. Well, we tried that during the passage of the Electoral and Administration Bill in the Lords in 2012-13. Amendments tabled by the Conservative Lords Lexden and Norton to abolish the 15 year rule failed because they were opposed by the Labour and Liberal Democrat peers.
So, it is only by returning a majority Conservative government in 2015 that Harry and millions of others will see their wish come true.
There are still some other practical problems that we need to address. Expats have to register very year. Postal voting can be difficult with erratic postal services sometimes meaning that your vote could arrive too late to be counted. The government has recently introduced electronic registration for overseas voters, which is a good start.
But all of these issues create obstacles to registration. A recent survey by Conservatives Abroad showed that, whereas over 94 per cent believed that expats should be allowed to vote in UK elections, only 36 per cent of those questioned were actually registered.
So why should people make the effort when they don’t live in the UK anymore? Well, first, voting is our entitlement as a British citizen. Almost every other European country allows their citizens worldwide to vote in their home country with no limitations. Secondly, your vote could make a big difference to the outcome of elections, especially in marginal seats.
And having a say in British General Elections is important. We may live abroad but many are still affected by the policies of the UK government on issues such as pensions and taxes. The Labour Party, for example, announced that it would tax pensions to help fund their youth employment scheme. This will have a direct impact on the future incomes of many expats. We also want to have a say in the type of government our country and friends and relatives have, even though we no longer live there.
Later this month Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP, Party Vice-Chairman and Chairman of the International Office, is holding a meeting of Conservative MPs and peers who have an interest in mobilising Briton’s expats. Attendees will include Sir Roger Gale MP, a stalwart supporter of Conservatives Abroad and Chairman of the All Party Group on Frozen British Pensions, which is campaigning to link the state pensions of Britons living abroad to inflation, as is the case in the UK.
We hope that this group will spearhead the campaign, supported by Conservatives Abroad, to engage with the millions of lost British expat voters and contribute to a Conservative victory in 2015.
This week’s announcement of a manifesto commitment to abolish the 15 year rule is a great start. It gives us a clear differentiator from the other parties to show that it’s only a Conservative government that will look after the rights of the 5.6 million Britons living abroad.
> Conservatives Abroad will be hosting a fringe meeting on winning the lost millions of votes at Party Conference on September 29th. You can see full details of this and other campaigns at www.conservativesabroad.org