From 16 January 2024, British migrants living abroad, for no matter how long, will be eligible to register to vote in UK parliamentary elections. The new rules abolish the current 15-year limit and enfranchise more than three million Britons, giving them a democratic right to hold influence over what happens in the UK.
Voting rights for British migrants living abroad
After years of campaigning by many pro-democracy, civic society, and campaign groups from across the political spectrum, one individual impacted the campaign more than any other: Harry Shindler OBE. A World War II British veteran who fought at the Battle of Anzio and the Liberation of Rome in 1944. Harry had lived in Italy for decades and campaigned for 20 years on the subject, including challenging the limit on voting rights in the high court in 2016 and the European Court of Justice in 2018.
The Conservatives promised to enact ‘Votes for Life’ in three manifestoes. Then, in 2021, when Harry was 100 years old, then prime minister Boris Johnson wrote him a letter promising his government would enact the changes. Harry saw that promise made good in 2022 via the elections bill.
Harry sadly passed away in February 2023 at the age of 101, so he will not be able to cast his vote in this coming election year, but it was a fitting tribute to a man who was a true patriot and an inspiration to so many.
Why should Brits abroad have these rights?
Most British living abroad retain deep and significant ties to their home nation, and many will return to live in the UK at some point. Most have close family living in the UK, including adult children, siblings, and parents. Many maintain economic ties and pay taxes, whether through investments, business interests, or other financial connections, so UK policies and decisions can directly impact British citizens living abroad. This includes taxation, healthcare, and pension policies.
In addition, some host nations allow voting rights in local elections but not in national elections, nor (for those in the EU) in European parliament elections. This leads to disenfranchisement, meaning many feel they have no power and are not represented in the political system in either their home or host nation.
With the changes to voting rights for British abroad comes the ability to donate to political parties. There is certainly some worry from those at the UK Electoral Reform Society, who caution that this could usher in an era where foreign interests can subtly shape British political discourse.
There is also a perception that ‘expats’ are wealthy or retired and that the majority would support the Conservative Party, which is believed to be one of the reasons that Labour traditionally opposed extending voting participation, and the Conservatives had it in their manifestoes.
However, we need to consider several factors.
Brexit is hugely unpopular with British living in the EU and the Conservatives’ position on this has turned these voters against the party. Only 17% of those who voted for the Conservative Party in 2015 and then to Remain in the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum (which was 95% of all 2015 EU-based Tories) still supported the Conservatives in 2019.
In addition, British people abroad tend to be more globalist in attitude, with many living in multi-cultural societies. Being an immigrant and a minority changes your perspective. Undoubtedly, the nationalistic behaviour and chaos of the Conservative Party over the past few years has led to a sense of embarrassment and anger for many Brits living overseas. Those of us who live abroad notice that when speaking to others about Britain, reactions have notably changed over the past few years.
How to register to vote
Starting on 16 January 2024, all those who have lived abroad for longer than the current 15 allowable years, even if they left the UK as children and were never on the electoral roll, can begin the registration process. The government’s voter registration page will be updated with the changes from that date, and a constantly updated guide from citizen’s rights group Bremain in Spain, with the information, links, and more below, can be found here. The registration renewal has also been changed from yearly, to every three years.
To prove your ID, you must provide your national insurance number and your date of birth. If you have a British passport (current or expired), you will need to scan it for ID purposes. If you have lost your national insurance number, you can search for it here.
You must provide documentation containing your full name and address details to prove your address. Acceptable documentation includes:
- A UK driving licence (current or expired)
- correspondence from HMRC or the Department for Work and Pensions
- council tax statement/demand
- credit card statement
- utility or mobile phone bill
- letter from an insurance company
- P45 or P60 form or payslip
- bank/building society passbook
- local authority rent book.
If you cannot provide satisfactory evidence of your ID and former UK address, you can provide an attestation. You can ask someone (not a close family member) to attest to the details you provide. Your attestor must be over 18 and registered to vote in the UK, but they do not need to be a UK resident.
The campaign for greater representation of Brits abroad continues
New Europeans UK and Unlock Democracy are jointly running a campaign for parliamentary overseas constituencies that would bring in dedicated representation for the British abroad. A growing coalition of political, campaign and civil society groups is now collaborating on this campaign, including Lib Dems Abroad, Lib Dems Overseas, Bremain in Spain, British in Europe and more.
Several countries already have this system; however, the French system is the best example the UK could follow. In December 2023, the campaign organisers hosted a webinar in which French parliamentarian Alexandre Holroyd, one of 11 representatives of French citizens living abroad, spoke about France’s system. Alexandre is the MP for Northern Europe which includes Great Britain. There are ten other zones represented. For example, the fourth Circonscription is (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg) and the 11th Circonscription (Eastern Europe, Russia, China, Asia, Australia, and Oceania).
For elections for the Assemblée Nationale French citizens abroad can vote in person, by post, by proxy or by internet voting. Voting in person is done at a consular polling station. A vast improvement on the current allowable methods allowable for voting in UK elections if you are abroad.
There are also 12 senators who represent French citizens living abroad in the Senate. They are indirectly elected under a system of proportional representation by the 150 elected members of the Assembly of French Citizens Resident Abroad.
Attendees were impressed, but considering around 5.5 million Brits live abroad, it exposed stark differences between how the British and French governments view the rights of its citizens living overseas.
As Alexandre said, “To be a French citizen is to be part of a community that believes its destiny is decided by the totality of the community, whether they live in France or not.” “We all play a role in the functioning of parliamentary groups and of government”.
On overseas voters, he concluded, “It’s a huge pool of voters. It’s something that is quite hard to ignore”.
Maybe now that all Brits abroad can fully participate in elections, the UK government will have to start paying a bit more attention to their issues and concerns because collectively they now have the power to really effect change.