Opinion: Let’s have real “power to the people” for those of us outside the UK

power to the peopleThere is a lot wrong or out-of-date with our current political system. The Lib Dem policy paper “Power to the People” passed at the spring conference in York, addresses those issues in a typically liberal, radical way. It is worthy of our support, as a step forward, even if some find parts of it imperfect.

“Power to the People” aims to explore the viability of overseas constituencies. This would be quite radical for the UK but would – I believe – benefit it a great deal. There are around five million British citizens living abroad, 2.2 million of them in the European Union. Enfranchising fully those living abroad in such a way would open up Britain even more to the outside world and bring a different and unique world perspective to the House of Commons. Countries such as France have this system. We should examine carefully the benefits that their representatives bring to debates in their national assembly.

Nevertheless there is an issue to resolve before getting into the overseas constituency debate. It is giving back the vote to those of us who have lost it, thanks to living abroad for more than fifteen years.

Imagine the situation that I face currently. I aim to be a prospective parliamentary candidate for a constituency in the south-east for the 2015 General Election. Based in Brussels, I am just an hour’s flight away from Britain (in fact I can arrive there immediately I have left thanks to the time difference).   I have a home in London, I pay taxes on the rental, and I will pay inheritance tax on my death. Even more ridiculously, I can be elected to the House of Commons while not being able to vote in the election.

The fifteen year rule is a flagrant violation of a British citizen’s right to vote in the United Kingdom. It is profoundly illiberal. It should be abolished.

European Union citizens are enfranchised if registered to vote in local and European Union-level elections in their EU country of residence. No such rule exists for national elections.

Last January, the European Commission highlighted this discrepancy in a communication addressing the consequences of disenfranchisement of Union citizens exercising their right to free movement. Only five out of 28 countries in the EU – Cyprus, Denmark, Ireland, Malta and the United Kingdom – leave their citizens in such a quandary.

Let this coalition government take the simple step of abolishing the arbitrary fifteen year rule for overseas residents, re-enfranchising those of us that work for Britain from abroad.

* George Cunningham is a member of the Federal International Relations Committee, Chair of Lib Dems Abroad and a member of ALDE Council. He was proposing the motion on China at Autumn Conference.

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  • Sorry but I think only people living in the UK should be allowed to vote here. There are an awful lot of rich non-British people who have property in the UK. Should they all be allowed to vote? Do we really want to go back to a political system that privileged the property owners? I’m sorry you can’t vote in Belgian national elections but it was your decision to live there.

  • Trevor Stables 21st Mar '14 - 11:50am

    There are a variety of reasons why Brits live abroad, often for family reasons for those that have foreign partners. The vast majority of Brits abroad pay their taxes in the UK and are affected by governmental decisions.
    Ever heard of the phrase ” No taxation without representation”?
    We are members of the EU with free movement, EU citizens should not lose their vote after 15 years by exercising their right of free movement.
    At the very least the 2.5 million of us living elsewhere should get representation, just like the French and even the Americans afford their citizens.

  • George needs to explain why he “can be elected to the House of Commons while not being able to vote in the election.” when by his own admission he is maintaining a home (ie. normal residence for official purposes) in London.

    I find myself questioning just what sort of a person would allow themselves to fall foul of the 15 year rule and yet would be sufficiently motivated to maintain a voter registration and actually take the time to make an informed vote.

  • I would disagree with the author’s sentiments at least within an EU context.

    All citizens of EU member states are EU citizens. They are entitled to vote in local and EU elections. In some cases they are also entitled to vote in general elections (e.g. citizens from IE, CY & MT can vote here).

    Those “some cases” should be extended to all cases in my opinion (if need be using the restricted enhanced cooperation system). The expectation should be that EU citizens wil vote where they live within the EU – and I stress with no double voting in their home member state (either EU citizens are or are becoming “permanent residents” of the member state they live in).

    The current system where people complain about newcomers failing to integrate, yet deny them the opportunity to integrate by votig – one of the fundamental bedrocks of a democracy – is profoundly wrong.

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 22nd Mar '14 - 10:27am

    Most of us have no reason to check the various British citizen categories – they are defined as British citizen, British overseas territories citizen, British overseas citizen, British subject, British national (overseas), British protected person. The variations have come about because international treaties etc change a person’s status unless certain procedures are followed at the time. Our immigration controls are quite strict but can be varied if you check http://www.gov.uk

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