Overseas Constituencies for Overseas Voters #VotesWithRepresentation

The right to vote is an intrinsic part of any democratic state. As the “United Kingdom,” we pride ourself on the rich tapestry of culture that has enacted wide-ranging legislation to protect the needs of all our citizens. Yet, representation of our overseas population, some 5.5 million citizens, is woeful. A full one million citizens, myself included, are currently disenfranchised due to an arbitrary 15-year limit, and another one million are under-age and tied to their parents’ constituency. For nearly 40 years, voter participation sat at 1-2% of all British citizens abroad and while Brexit elevated this number to 5%, its paucity is striking. So, how do we engage our citizens overseas and bring them back into the political fold?

The introduction of the Elections Bill in mid-2021 after the failure of the Overseas Electors Bill in 2019 through a Tory filibuster goes some way to achieving this but we believe it is not enough. Abolishing the 15-year rule may enfranchise a million people, but it remains just one leg of a two-leg policy that the Liberal Democrats have campaigned for in our 2017 and most recent 2019 manifesto – overseas constituencies. Without representation, participation will remain low. Where France has 11 dedicated overseas constituencies, 12 senators and a junior minister in charge of foreign constituent affairs, the UK will have none.

First enfranchised in the Representation of the People Act 1985, the new bill requires overseas citizens to register in their former UK constituency, creating an umbilical cord to a place with little incentive to campaign on our behalf. Diluted by regional concerns, “what about us?” will come the cry. Frozen pensions have severely diminished income for 500,000 of our weakest, but no collective representation has led to inaction in Westminster even after a Canadian Parliament shaming. The Brexit referendum’s 265,000 registered overseas votes out of a potential 3.5 million was shocking given the implications for free movement for them, their children and their fellow disqualified expatriates. As draconian bills such as The Police Bill and Nationality Bill progress through the house, we witness an erosion of rights and the spectre of citizenship nullification. Yet, after so many lost decades, is it any wonder the politically neutered are despondent?

Representation during consideration was made by George Cunningham, now Chair of the newly-formed Lib Dems Abroad Steering Committee, encompassing the three parties outside the UK. Alas, our party’s commitment to overseas constituencies is not supported by the Tory government. We are therefore pushing for an amendment to include an electronic component via Fax or Email to ensure all votes are counted, and will press our peers to include the constituency issue as a priority in their speech. We urge all citizens abroad to endorse your support by clicking below and leaving your name. We must and should do better to raise the voice of British citizens abroad.

As former U.S. President Barack Obama eloquently stated: “Nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change.”

Sign the petition  

* James E Churchill is Chair of Lib Dems Overseas, North America branch

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39 Comments

  • Chris Moore 9th Feb '22 - 3:23pm

    I’ve lived in Spain for more than 15 years.

    I’ve signed your petition.

    Expats can also offer a more distant and wider perspective on UK affairs, as they are less caught up in day-to-day minutiae.

    Happily, all five countries in which I’ve lived have had the best health service in the world.

  • Brad Barrows 9th Feb '22 - 4:28pm

    I’m afraid I disagree with the idea that people who no longer live in a country should continue to have a vote in that country’s affairs. Clearly those who are working abroad while continuing to keep a residence in their home country, have a continuing stake in the country and its political direction. However, those who have decided to move abroad permanently should not be entitled to continue to vote in elections in the country they have left. There names should be removed from electoral registers when they no longer qualify as living in any constituency and should only get their vote back if they return.

  • Brad Barrows 9th Feb '22 - 4:30pm

    ‘Their’ would have been better…

  • Chris Moore 9th Feb '22 - 4:57pm

    You support the status quo, Brad.

    However, most expats continue to have many ties with the country of their birth, whether through family, work, tax, business; not to mention sentimental ties.

    The UK diaspora is a resource. France is much more aware and enlightened in this regard than the UK.

  • I have to say I am in agreement with Brad on this one.

    If you have chosen to live abroad permanently, then I fail to see why you should get to vote in an election.

    It is different if you are only working abroad, or if you for instance you have a 2nd home in another country and divide your time between the 2 countries, however, you still have a base in the UK and spend “x” amount of time there.

    But I fail to see why anyone who lives in another country on a permanent basis, should get to vote in an election or referendum where the outcome has an effect on the rest of us.

    Lets just say for example the Tories went into the next election on a manifesto to Cut Pensioner Benefits, Abolish Sickness Benefits and make everyone claim JSA and decided to reverse Gay Marriage.
    How on earth could it ever be right for someone who is no longer a resident of the UK to be able to vote for that?

    Sorry, do not agree with this article at all

  • Brad Barrows 9th Feb '22 - 5:41pm

    @Chris Moore
    When I was a student I lived in Aberdeen. I still have friends and family who live in the city and continue to follow Aberdeen FC’s results. Do you think I should be allowed to vote in Aberdeen City Council elections?

  • Christopher Moore 9th Feb '22 - 6:52pm

    Come on, Brad.

    I mentioned tax, family, work, business and sentimental ties. Most expats have several of the above.

    I pay large amounts of UK tax, have close family in the UK, numerous friends, occasional work. I certainly should have the vote. And many other Uk emigrants should as well.

    Matt, how could it be right for ANYONE to vote for the anti-manifesto you’ve come up with? And why on earth do you imagine expats would be more likely to vote for such tosh than a resident?

  • @Christopher

    The point was a theoretical one Chris, surely you can see that.

    Why should someone no longer living in the UK and who is not to be directly affected by those in Government get to have a say on who governs and what manifesto they stand upon which affects those still living in that country and are directly affected by those laws and policies.

    Sorry, I just cannot see how that can ever be right and I can not square it with democracy.

    Sure I agree when it comes to things like pensions, expats who have paid into the system should get the same entitlement and uplift as any other pensioner who has remained in the country, but beyond that, I cannot see why an ex-pat should have a democratic say in a countries election unless they were living between both countries

  • Nonconformistradical 9th Feb '22 - 8:57pm

    Chris Moore might have a point about tax.

    It is possible to be living abroad while in receipt of UK-originated income – e.g. a retired person in receipt of a pension from a UK company – which is taxed in the UK is it not? And wasn’t one of the slogans in the struggle for American independence from Britain “No taxation without representation”?

  • Chris Moore 9th Feb '22 - 9:24pm

    Ok, so, Matt, how quickly would you take the vote away from non-residents?

    Intuitions about this are very different from country to country. In Brazil voting in presidential elections is obligatory for emigrants under the age of 70, for example. Merely optional for the 70+.

    Many countries have a more generous understanding of the association with the home country than your account allows: not in the country, no vote.

    Part of the beauty of our membership with the EU was that it loosened up – to my mind – rigid ideas about nationality. All that is being quickly forgotten, in spite of the rhetoric about a Global Britain.

    On a personal level, I am of course “directly” effected by many UK decisions, as indeed are many other emigrants. I am also indirectly effected by many others.

    France have this right.

  • Nonconformistradical 9th Feb ’22 – 8:57pm:
    It is possible to be living abroad while in receipt of UK-originated income – e.g. a retired person in receipt of a pension from a UK company – which is taxed in the UK is it not?

    Pensions are tax deferred income. Tax relief is given on money put in, on the basis that it will be taxed when paid out.

  • @Chris / Christopher

    “Part of the beauty of our membership with the EU was that it loosened up – to my mind ”
    Well I won’t get into the whole EU thing as I am Liberal Brexiteer and spent far to many years on this forum expressing those views and will not bore people with them again.

    And I would not take the vote away from non-residents and in fact, I would give more people the right to vote. As far as I am concerned if you are working and living in the UK and paying tax and Or receiving benefits and you are affected by the policies of the UK government directly, then you should have the right to vote IMO. Those include for example all the people who are here with Indefinite leave to remain but are not from a commonwealth country who have been denied a vote for years.

    I just do not agree that people who no longer live in the country, should get to vote in parliamentary elections and I am yet to hear you present a case on why you believe otherwise and how it is affecting your democracy

  • Lorenzo Cherin 9th Feb '22 - 10:30pm

    Chris

    America even have political links abroad, Democrats Abroad for example, a branch in most major countries, like your mention of France, encourages the voter living in another country, to particiapate in the elections in the US.

    Matt

    Dear friend, I disagree on this one. James in his thoughtful piece, deals with or has ideas for, something that is a a topic, that does have a solution to this. It is a creation of a constituency, in effect, for those abroad. It means the anacronism of linking to a constituency is wiped , instead, it is as if Abroad, is the area.

    My view is, it is a brth right you retain by your citizenship. I think it is awful , if you think about it, that someone who marries and settles in another country, nust cut themselves off. That is what, not allowing them to vote seems to me. I might have settled in the Us on marriage. I would have wanted a vote here, but not in a constitency I had no more link to, but to the country itself. Thus a solution is suggested here.

  • David Le Grice 9th Feb '22 - 11:37pm

    We should be giving constituencies to overseas territory’s and crown dependencies also.

  • Andrew Tampion 10th Feb '22 - 7:34am

    I can see the case for giving Crown Dependencies voting rights through creating constituencies, assuming that the residents agreed. But the Lib Dem policy on STV will cause problems. You could count the Channel Islands, population 170,000, as one 2 seat constituency but what would you do about the Isle of Man, population 80,000? The Falkland Islands is an even bigger problem for STV with it’s population of 2300?
    However I agree with Brad Barrows that there is no strong case for giving all expatriates the vote. The 15 year rule always seemed a fair compromise to me.
    In any case I don’t believe that this is a vote winner. So I don’t think that this should be a prominent part of any future manifesto.

  • Brad Barrows 10th Feb '22 - 9:07am

    @Andrew Tampion
    Just a point : the Crown dependencies are not part of the United Kingdom so should have no say in electing the UK Parliament.

  • Maurice Leeke 10th Feb '22 - 10:06am

    While we are considering this can we also give some thought to the other side of the coin – Taxation ?
    Of course many British Citizens living abroad have strong ties to the UK, and rely on some British services, such as British Embassies and Consulates and their staff in times of troubles. Should these Citizens, resident abroad, not expect to pay UK taxes in full (subject to double-taxation relief) ?

  • @Matt: I salute your resilience as a Lib Dem Brexiteer.

    When I joined the party in the mid-80s, there were many Eurosceptic members. I’ve repeatedly said on here we need to appeal to all the liberal-minded, including the many who voted Leave. Let’s hope there will be many more members like yourself soon!

  • “Without representation, participation will remain low. Where France has 11 dedicated overseas constituencies, 12 senators and a junior minister in charge of foreign constituent affairs”
    From what I’ve managed to determine, the experience in France is that participation remains very low. It is hard to find reliable figures but 13% seems typical, compared to circa 60% within France. Whilst this is better than the UK manages today, it seems constituencies on their own aren’t sufficient.

  • @Maurice Leeke – “…Taxation ?
    … Should these Citizens, resident abroad, not expect to pay UK taxes in full (subject to double-taxation relief) ?”

    Perhaps the UK should follow the US IRS and link holding a GB passport with the paying of UK income taxes on worldwide income.
    As surely the only reason to hold a GB passport after 15 years of living abroad is as some form of insurance policy, specifically, if it all goes pear shaped, they can always return to the UK and have the NHS and social services look after them, or to be able to easily visit family (typically elderly parents). So it seems reasonable for them to be paying ‘insurance’ premiums. I suggest the tax rate should be lower as a form of encouragement to go and work abroad.

    Having linked expats with the UK, I suspect more will be interested in representation at Westminster.

  • Laurence Cox 10th Feb '22 - 12:11pm

    I would be inclined to turn the American motto round and say “no Representation without Taxation”. After all everyone living in the UK pays UK tax, even if only VAT, but a British expatriate pays their taxes to the country that they are domiciled in. There is, in my view, a better case for enfranchising residents of this country, regardless of their citizenship, than British citizens living abroad: who would want Philip Green and his wife, who choose to live in Monaco, to be entitled to vote in UK elections.

    The comparison with the French system is misleading, because France has always considered these overseas territories to be part of Metropolitan France, while the author wants British citizens anywhere in the world to have the right to vote.

    We should not need overseas constituencies to remedy the wrongs of frozen pensions; we had the opportunity to do that during the Coalition Government, but the Party chose not to take it (along with many other failings).

  • No, as an “insurance policy” is not the only reason to hold a British passport after 15 years abroad!

    It seems to me that several posters on here are having a failure of imagination and empathy!

  • James Churchill 10th Feb '22 - 11:02pm

    @Laurence Cox – Taxation
    British people may not pay “income tax” while living abroad because they are earning income in a foreign country and paying it for their obligation while resident there. However, all British people are considered domiciled to the U.K. at birth by the Inland Revenue and as such pay IHT 40% above the threshold of £325,000.

  • James Churchill 10th Feb '22 - 11:03pm

    @Maurice Leeke
    As said above, I think your comment is regarding “income tax.” There are bilateral tax treaties already covering “income tax” with many of our allies and partners around the world. I have never heard of citizens being taxed for embassy related matters. These embassies and consulates around the world are there for the service of their citizens and charge accordingly for their services. In the 21 years I have spent abroad, I have only stepped in to a British embassy once, and that was for a party that was organised by the embassy itself in Tokyo. Emergency services are offered to local and British citizens only in times of need and I do not think citizens should be taxed for potential “acts of God.”

  • James Churchill 10th Feb '22 - 11:03pm

    @Roland
    These statistics are still considerably higher than the rates the U.K. has been reaching of around 6-7% during Brexit, but by engaging British citizens overseas we can hopefully increase it to France’s levels and beyond.

  • James Churchill 10th Feb '22 - 11:06pm

    @Matt and @Brad
    Permanent residency is no longer as absolute as you claim in my opinion. In Hong Kong, for example, permanent residency (to non-Chinese born citizens) is only given on the pretext that it must be renewed by visiting every 3 years. In Ecuador the limit is 5 years. With COVID-19, many people have subsequently lost their permanent residency due to closed borders and inflexibility on the part of law and immigration departments.

    By encouraging our overseas citizens to be involved in our politics, we maintain a relationship with the British diaspora that will likely include positive trade flows such as GBP remittances, university enrollments, cultural ties, travel benefits et al. Many bills in the house affect overseas residents directly and family members indirectly. I do not understand why we would wish to penalize these citizens by removing their voice. Instead of a “Global Britain,” your push for cutting this diaspora off pushes us closer to the island nation of “Little Britain” in my humble opinion.

  • James Churchill 10th Feb '22 - 11:08pm

    @Martin
    I totally agree with you Martin. There are increasing cases of people married to overseas citizens who cannot return due to domestic responsibilities that are penalized through access to NHS, frozen pensions et al. This could be despite decades of paying National Insurance contributions and payment of other taxes for local assets. Nothing is clear-cut as borders are increasingly porous and international.

  • As for “things going pear-shaped” – in the run-up to Brexit we the UK Embassy in Slovakia organized one public meeting with the ambassador in the second largest city in the country. Apart from that we’ve never seen them. No, that isn’t something we should pay taxes for.

    Regarding the other stuff. I’ve been abroad more than 15 years and no longer have the right to vote. I’m fine with that as long as I can recover the right to vote if and when I return to the UK.

  • Nonconformistradical 11th Feb '22 - 9:20am

    @Richard S
    Do you have any voting rights in the country where you live? If so in what elections can you vote?

  • Chris Moore 11th Feb '22 - 4:08pm

    Hello NCRadical,

    I pay UK tax and have no vote in the UK.

    I pay Spanish tax and have no vote in Spain, as I’m British. Prior to Brexit, I could vote in local and European elections in Spain.

    @Roland: I do not maintain my British passport as an “insurance policy”. I have ties of family, friends, income, house, occasional work AND I feel strongly British. ((And European)) Not Spanish. My wife and son are Spanish.

    My story is not untypical.

    Ps Why on earth would I want to fly to the UK to use the NHS when the local health service is on the doorstep and superior?

  • Andrew Tampion 12th Feb '22 - 7:06am

    Brad Barrows
    I am aware that Crown Dependencies are not part of the United Kingdom: I was responding to David Le Grice’s comment which is immediately above mine, although I should have made that clear.
    However I don’t see why if Liberal democrats believe in a fedreal UK consideration should not be given to giviing Crown Dependencies representation in Parliament. Especially if overseas constituencies are being created for some or all UK expatriates.

  • Not sure I see why someone moved away would or should want to influence affairs for everyone else remaining, always thought 15 years was too long (surely people will have decided by then). Wouldn’t you want to vote in your (chosen) home country by then?

  • James Churchill 13th Feb '22 - 1:32pm

    @Jack
    I have been overseas for 21 years, and only in my current country for 3 years. I am not entitled to vote because I am not yet a permanent resident and this could take several more years… Not everyone will want to go for citizenship as well. Not all expatriates move to 1 country and then settle – many are moved around due to work or study and maintain strong ties to the U.K. whether through family or assets that are taxed globally.

  • Charles Sydney 13th Feb '22 - 5:57pm

    Disenfranchised. Screwed by Brexit. I want to vote.
    Yes, I chose to live and work abroad. No, I haven’t ‘severed my links’ with the UK.
    The only reason the government doesn’t / didn’t want expats to vote is they assume everyone will vote Labour. The only reason Labour doesn’t / didn’t want expats to vote is they assume we’re all rich Tories.
    Give us the choice – if someone doesn’t feel ‘concerned’ by what is happening in the UK, they won’t vote, so even Brad should be OK with this.
    My only query – why ‘fax’?

  • @Nonconformistradical
    Yes I have citizenship of the other country now. After 15 years abroad one should seriously consider taking that step to play a full part in the society in which one lives.

    Otherwise it would be sub-national (regional, city and borough) elections only.

  • Chris Platts 11th Mar '22 - 10:42am

    If we are excluded from voting in the U.K. we should have the right to vote where live,at the moment we are excluded from voting in the EU therefore if we loose the right to vote on in the UK we will be disenfranchised and that is wrong

  • Paul Fisher 28th Apr '22 - 8:31pm

    Oh deary me. So what is the LibDems official policy on UK Constituencies Abroad. Any answers George Cunningham, Jenny Shorten? What a mess.

  • @Paul: LibDem policy is to introduce overseas constituencies. As James mentioned, it was part of our 2019 election manifesto, and most recently Lord Wallace tried to introduce an amendment to the Elections Bill (see amendment 149 ) . See also his comments in Hansard.

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