Votes 4 Life

3,000,000 – that is the estimated number of UK citizens who currently have no right to vote in UK parliamentary elections, despite the fact that decisions made in Westminster affect their lives in their countries of residence. Currently, only those UK citizens who have lived abroad for less than 15 years are entitled to vote at their last place of residence. At the last General Election, our manifesto supported the claim to a “Vote for Life”, as did the Conservative one, but the government announced no legislation in the Queen’s Speech. Fortunately, Conservative MP Glyn Davies introduced a private members bill, supported by our own Layla Moran, and the government has indicated that it will support the proposal.

Over the years we’ve often been questioned about why UK citizens should be entitled to vote for the Westminster Parliament. The exclusion may have made sense in the days in which emigrating abroad meant spending the rest of one’s life in another. These days, however, many UK citizens maintain strong links with their country of birth or naturalization. The internet has enabled regular contact – there is no need to book an international call on a poor line several days in advance. Travel has become commonplace.

Not only do decisions made in London affect our lives as non-resident Britons – for example pension payments or access to health service – but most expatriates maintain strong links and an interest in what happens in the UK. The most obvious example was the referendum on membership of the European Union. Despite its effects on over 1.2 million UK citizens living and – for the most part – working in Europe, many did not have a vote. As a result, a decision was made which has caused a massive amount of concern to British nationals and their families. Many of us still do not know whether we shall need a working or residence permit from March 29, 2019, or whether we will have to leave our adopted countries.

Prior to the 2017 general election the government had published a White Paper arguing that it was important for democracy that British citizens overseas should be empowered to vote. Whilst this represents a major step in the right direction, we think that special overseas constituencies be created to represent this category of electors. The examples of France or Portugal shows how specialized members of parliament can represent the interests of overseas electors well.

Although the private members bill was sponsored by one Labour MP, Mike Gapes, other Labour MPs do not support the measure. Jeremy Corbyn has argued that adding overseas citizens to the electoral lists would seriously stretch the resources of the returning officer. We don’t doubt that more resources would need to be required – but democracy is expensive as we all know. Arguing that is being prudent to remove one section of the electorate because they are more expensive to service is surely undemocratic in itself. It’s true that the bill only addresses one section of the electoral franchise – we also need to be looking at votes for 16 and 17 year olds. Restoring democratic rights to UK citizens abroad is certainly not intended to exclude other proposals to widen the franchise.

We’ll be holding a fringe meeting during conference on Sunday at 1 pm in the Hilton Hotel to discuss these issues as well as launching Liberal Democrats Abroad to enable members of our party living outside of the United Kingdom to play a full role. Please join us – refreshments provided.

* Robert Harrison is the Chair of the Liberal Democrats in Europe Local Party. He has lived in Germany since 1990 and from 1987-1990 in the Netherlands.

* George Cunningham is the Chair of Liberal Democrats Overseas Local Party, whose members come from outside of Europe. He has lived in various countries since 1987.

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  • Scott Berry 9th Sep '18 - 4:23pm

    I saw this on the conference app. It looks really interesting but the interesting fringe sessions always seem to clash and there are 3 or 4 at 1pm on Sunday I want to go to. I noticed though that the Europe motion on Monday includes a call for UK residents overseas to have a vote in both a second referendum and in future general elections so assume this will be discussed as part of that debate?

  • Indeed – we shall be talking about giving UK citizens in Europe the rights to vote in a Peoples Vote.

  • Andrew Houseley 10th Sep '18 - 10:33am

    And where are we likely to be able to read the Europe motion?

  • Peter Martin 10th Sep '18 - 5:26pm

    Can I just request a clarification on this?

    If someone is born in the UK and has a UK passport, but then leaves to live overseas, it is LibDem policy that they should have full voting rights, for life, in the UK as well as their new country of residence?

    So they will effectively have more voting rights than anyone else who hasn’t moved and has stayed in the UK to pay UK taxes.

    So what about if someone is born in Wales or Scotland? Do they retain voting rights for life for these Assemblies, and in any independence referendums, even if they later move to England? I guess not.

    But they do retain full voting rights if they move out of the UK?

  • Andrew Houseley 10th Sep '18 - 7:26pm

    Peter Martin. They won’t have more rights to vote. Unless perhaps they decide and are able eventually able to take dual nationality. Otherwise they can’t vote for the French president and deputies in French parliament. However, while they lose their right to vote in UK local elections they can after a four year period vote in the local elections in the town and district where they actually live. Does that sound fair? And depriving UK nationals of the right to vote in UK elections after 15 years disenfranchises them for all national elections. That is unfair to say the least, right? The taxation argument is a complete red herring: Many UK residents do not pay tax while many UK nationals living overseas do pay UK income tax. They do have a choice if both countries have a double taxation agreement. But certain pensions, such as the civil service, have to be taxed at source in the UK.

  • Rob Harrison 10th Sep '18 - 8:11pm

    Peter Martin (and others). Do come along to our fringe meeting on Sunday and discuss these issues.

  • Peter Hirst 11th Sep '18 - 8:02pm

    Every vote is equal in a referendum and my priority would be to include younger people and those from overseas who have been resident here for say three years. It is not easy to discover who has links here even if that were a criteria for franchisement. I would insert a visiting criteria say a month a year to be included. I don’t agree with a vote for life as it is not fair to those who live here.

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