For the first time, approximately 3.5 million UK nationals living overseas will be eligible to vote in the next general election. Previously, individuals lost this right after living abroad for over 15 years but the government’s decision to scrap this policy has stopped short of real change.
To justify abolishing the time limit, the government rightly acknowledged that most UK citizens abroad retain some ties to the UK. Yet to exercise their right to vote, they must be registered at their last UK address which they may have left decades ago.
This leaves overseas citizens at a significant disadvantage. Although ostensibly of equal status to other voters, they comprise only a small percentage of each constituency’s population and so can be safely ignored. It seems unlikely that a candidate in Melton Mowbray will send leaflets to Malmö, knock on doors in Málaga, or, once elected, hold in-person MP’s surgeries in Milan.
The absence of a real incentive for MPs under the current system to advocate for those who reside abroad, and MPs’ lack of familiarity with the challenges they face, creates an effective two-tier system for UK citizenship: those with informed and motivated representation, and those without.
Decisions made in Parliament, including foreign policy, immigration and pensions, can have direct consequences for Britons overseas.
Take the example of a British associate I met in Brussels recently. Despite moving away years ago, his continued attachment to UK society through family and friends means that, much like all of us, he is counting the costs of Liz Truss’ ruinous premiership. Yet without a committed voice in the debate, his interests get sidelined.
Overseas constituencies, returning dedicated representatives to the UK Parliament, would help to overcome this democratic deficit. European counterparts, France, Italy and Romania – and in total 17 countries worldwide – already have such systems, both in response to their large and growing diasporas, and in recognition of the distinct interests of overseas citizens. We should follow their lead.
For many expats, this would be a welcome change: one supporter of overseas constituencies who lives in Italy observes, “I feel like there is no one who is listening to [our concerns], as the MPs in our former constituencies are not able to keep abreast of any issues we face, and there are not enough of us for them to bother about.” Another UK national, now resident in Portugal, tells of how, especially in respect of Brexit, “a knowledgeable, dedicated MP would have made the whole process simpler.”
With Labour boasting a significant lead in the polls, Keir Starmer could soon be faced with an opportunity to tackle this. He used his Party Conference speech earlier this year to decry the inability of Westminster, isolated behind its “high walls”, “to listen…to stand in your shoes.” More recently, the Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, has spoken of the urgent need to “rewire” the UK’s political system.
After all, his party is still pledged to extend the right to vote to 16- and 17-year-olds. He should go one step further and empower 3.5 million overseas voters with overseas constituencies.
In doing so, he could finally fashion a truly representative democracy.
Tom Brake is the Director of Unlock Democracy, who alongside New Europeans UK are campaigning for the introduction of overseas constituencies.