Former Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake. | Majorca Daily Bulletin reporter
This autumn, the 15-year voting rule for British expatriates will be scrapped, and the ‘vote for life’ will come into effect from January in time for the next General Election. And it has sparked a new campaign for MPs to be introduced to represent British constituents overseas.
Former Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake, now director of campaign group Unlock Democracy, is leading the march in association with New Europeans UK and a number of other lobby groups. He told the Bulletin this week that the campaign is already attracting a great deal of interest and that he is in talks with various political parties in the UK who have expressed an interest, apart from the Conservative Party.
The campaign gets under way as the UK government abolishes the legal bar, which currently prevents Britons who have lived outside the UK for more than 15 years from voting in UK elections. The move followed a 20-year-long battle by Harry Shindler, a Second World War veteran and British resident in Italy to remove the so-called 15-year bar. Harry Shindler recently passed away, age 101.
Chair of New Europeans UK, Dr Ruvi Ziegler, says: “The removal of the 15-year bar significantly strengthens the case for special representation for UK voters residing abroad. Whereas Britons living abroad retain substantive interests on the UK national level that justify their continued enfranchisement in Westminster elections, their links to a parliamentary constituency in the UK, which they may have left decades ago, may be weak and is likely to get even weaker with the passage of time. Conversely, their interests may chime more closely with fellow Britons living abroad and therefore require dedicated representation.”
Brake, who is no longer politically active and was keen to stress that Unlock Democracy is apolitical, said: “With the best will in the world, I know MPs struggle to grasp the different administrative, retirement or employment challenges a UK citizen in the Czech Republic faces compared to citizens in France, Thailand or the USA. That is why we are making the case for overseas constituency MPs who would develop expert knowledge of the problems faced by UK citizens living in different parts of the world.”
A 2022 report entitled ‘British citizens in the EU after Brexit’, led by Professor Michaela Benson, revealed a population which identifies as both British and European. The report confirmed that Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic have had a significantly negative impact on feelings towards the UK amongst Britons in Europe.
Dissatisfaction with political disenfranchisement in the UK and abroad featured prominently among those taking part in the survey. The report concluded that: “While the vote for life will be welcomed, more could be done to tailor the franchise, so that the extensive population of British citizens living outside the UK might have better democratic representation.”
A briefing paper is being distributed to parliamentarians of all parties who have expressed an interest in introducing overseas constituencies.
“With the abolition of the 15-year rule in the Elections Act 2022, every UK citizen abroad will soon have voting rights and that, according to the latest research and data, means that as many as 3.5 million Britons will be able to vote in the next General Election. Under the current domestic system, that equates to 41 MPs.
“However, as things stand, overseas voters will be represented by MPs who at best will have a genuine but historic connection; at worst no real connection at all.
“Recent research confirms that UK citizens abroad are not satisfied with these arrangements.
“To quote a UK citizen living abroad referenced in Tanja Bueltmann’s report, ‘Identity, Belonging and Representation Post-Brexit among British Citizens in the EU/EEA and Switzerland: Addendum Report for Unlock Democracy’ (January 2023), ‘I still have a vote in the UK but the way voting is organised in the UK I do not feel the interests of the diaspora are represented’.
“I believe, as do many other UK citizens abroad quoted in Tanja Bueltmann’s report, that overseas constituencies would provide far more effective representation for UK citizens living abroad.
“An overseas constituency is a constituency located outside of the UK that is designated as an electoral constituency for the representation of eligible voters residing temporarily or permanently there.
“There are at least 17 countries of different sizes and electoral systems with overseas constituencies,” Brake said.
“The rationale for overseas’ constituencies is strong - Weakened UK territorial link: the removal of the 15-year bar strengthens the case for a special style of representation for eligible voters residing abroad.
“Aligned concerns and interests: overseas voters’ concerns and interests are more likely to align with other overseas electors.
“Representation: Rather than having their vote drowned out and their interests dwarfed by the overwhelming number of constituents who reside in their UK Parliamentary constituency, the voices of UK citizens abroad will be clearly heard through designated representation.
“Simplification: moving from registering for and voting in 650 Westminster constituencies to a much smaller number of overseas constituencies will make registration and potentially counting easier.
“The boundaries for these overseas constituencies would be set by the Boundary Commission, but a possible division might be as follows: Europe; Australia & New Zealand; the Americas; Africa; the Middle East and rest of Asia.
“To determine the number of overseas constituencies, a sensible way forward would be to consider two stages. First, a registration drive once eligibility to vote is implemented; second, allocation of MPs based on the registered numbers. France has adopted an overseas constituencies’ model and has 11 overseas MPs. We estimate the extra cost would range from £5,000 p/a per new MP (for additional overseas travel costs in the case where there is no increase in the overall number of MPs) to £340,000 p/a roughly per each new MP (if the overseas MPs were added to the current 650 MPs),” Brake explained.
“I remember when I was an MP, we were always supposed to set aside time for ‘other constituents’ such as those living overseas who had the right to vote. But let’s be realistic, very few, if any of us MPs really knew the answers or solutions to their specific problems because we were not up to speed with the rules and regulations in the country in which they lived and what reciprocal agreements the UK had with overseas territories. So, with MPs for overseas constituents they will have a better grasp of what’s happening on the ground and the answers to Britons’ problems, be these regarding, for example, pensions, paperwork, business or immigration matters.
“And in the meantime, we would also like to see the Foreign and Commonwealth Office up its game. We know there is a serious lack of consistency between the services provided by the various British embassies and consulates around the world and that has to be addressed by the Foreign Office.
“We know that since Brexit, Britons, especially in Europe, have come up against some serious challenges and problems and in some cases received little or no assistance from the FCO.
“So, we will be lobbying for the FCO to improve its global service, make sure that the services provided are of a constantly high level and that this is maintained once the MPs for foreign constituents are introduced.
“In fact, it will one of the MPs’ tasks - to make sure that the FCO on their patch is serving the British community and doing its utmost to look after the welfare and well-being of British expatriates.
“Having MPs for expatriates has always been a Liberal Democrat policy and what we want to see is other parties either introducing this to their manifestos or at least agreeing to make it policy - to be honest whether it’s on the manifesto or not makes little difference - providing parties are prepared to look at the proposal and make it policy that is enough because policies are always changing.
“While turnout at the next general election from British expatriates may be low, who knows. One has to take into account they have not got much to vote for, but once they see that they will be able to vote for an MP for their overseas constituency, more people will vote as we move forward and the system will gain momentum, meaning that there are potentially a lot of votes out there for parties to canvas for.
“I know traditionally in the UK the image of an expat is one of high income, retired, living in a chateau or villa overlooking the sea, lying round the pool drinking gin and tonic and going to vote Conservative.
“But much has changed. The profile of Britons overseas is not what it was, if it ever was. There is a much younger professional community who live abroad and work around the world and will have varying political values and leanings. So, unlike the Conservatives for the time being, I think most parties will be interested.
To obtain the letter or lodge your support go to: unlockdemocracy.org.uk
“At the moment, the Government’s line is: ‘The Government believes that establishing an MP to solely represent overseas electors would be a significant change to the UK Parliamentary system and would raise wider issues relating to the representation of electors and the role of MPs. Creating overseas constituencies would be far from straightforward.
‘It would require complex bureaucratic deliberations to decide how many constituencies should be created and to draw up and maintain constituencies boundaries; boundaries which may stretch across multiple countries and would be affected by fluctuating migration.
‘There are no plans for the creation of overseas constituencies. Overseas electors will continue to vote in UK constituencies to which they have a significant and demonstrable connection. That constituency link is a cornerstone of our democracy’, but all that could change whether the Conservatives remain in power or not at the next General Election.
“In the meantime, we will be stepping up our campaign and continue talking to all parties. Via our website, British expatriates who want to lobby their MPs in support of this issue can obtain a standard letter which they can forward to their MP as someone who can already vote (or will soon be able to) in their constituency,” Brake said.