The Government has announced that it intends to lift the 15 year time limit of British citizens living abroad being able to vote in General Elections in the UK. The change will follow other changes to make it easier for overseas voters to continue to take part in British democracy. The last Parliament saw the introduction of online voter registration and the extension of the electoral timetable for postal ballots to be issued earlier.
But the new proposal goes beyond practical improvements and represents a point of principle. It is unjust to deny our fellow countrymen the right to vote.
Chris Skidmore, the Minister for the Constitution, says:
“British citizens who move abroad remain a part of our democracy and it is important they have the ability to participate. Following the British people’s decision to leave the EU, we now need to strengthen ties with countries around the world and show the UK is an outward-facing nation. Our expat community has an important role to play in helping Britain expand international trade, especially given two-thirds of expats live outside the EU.
“Expats retain strong links with the United Kingdom: they may have family here, and indeed they may plan to return here in the future. Modern technology and cheaper air travel has transformed the ability of expats to keep in touch with their home country.”
It will also implement a promise in the Conservative manifesto last year which said:
“We will introduce votes for life, scrapping the rule that bars British citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years from voting.”
The 15 year rule is arbitrary. There used to be a 20 year time limit but in 2000 the Labour Government cut it to 15 years, perhaps sensing some electoral advantage by disenfranchising more Conservative than Labour voters. Why, for instance, should someone whose main residence is abroad but has come back to the UK for a long visit each year be banned from voting after 16 years, while someone who has never been back for 14 years is able to vote?
We often talk of Britain’s advantages in terms of “soft power” internationally. What could be a more important manifestation of that than British people living abroad? According to the Institute for Public Policy Research there are 5.6 million of them, including 4.4 million of voting age. These days they have no difficulty in keeping up with British politics – some of them even read Conservative Home.
They show their continued loyalty in innumerable ways – why insult them by removing their right to vote and diminishing their goodwill? What of those who still have British bank accounts and still do business here, creating wealth and jobs? Why, after 15 years, should they receive, as Lord Lexden put it, “a cold, terse letter from their registration officer in Britain, informing them that their rights to register and vote are at an end”?
Kudos to Conservatives Abroad and Geoffrey Clifton-Brown for their campaigning on this issue. In a Ten Minute Rule Bill, Clifton-Brown compared our record to other countries:
“The 15-year limit we impose on voters is one of the strictest in the world. Indeed, from my research, the only countries with stricter rules on overseas voting are Ireland, Greece and Malta, where citizens who have left their country are not allowed to vote at all. However, countries as diverse as the US, France, Japan, South Africa, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Italy all have no limit on the ability of their citizens to vote from abroad. We must surely question why, as a country with a proud history of democracy and a wide franchise, we set some of the strictest rules in the world against our own citizens.”
The next challenge will be to encourage as many as possible of those who have been given the right to vote to be made aware of it (for instance when they renew their passports) and to exercise their right.