Low support for the Tories among EU Britons due to Brexit

Support for the Conservative Party has collapsed among Britons living abroad in the EU, a study of voting trends reveals.

28 August 2020
EU flag.Support for the Tories has collapsed among EU Britons due to Brexit.
By Connexion Journalist

Only 6% of those voting in the 2019 general election voted for the party, the study by politics experts Sue Collard and Professor Paul Webb of Sussex University shows – compared to 19.4% in 2015 and 12% in 2017. Many switched allegiance to Labour or the Lib Dems, with a combined 67% voting for these in 2015 and 85% in 2019.

Voting to remain in the EU

The study, based on a survey of 3,200 Britons in the EU, also found that 58% took part in the Brexit referendum and, of these, 95% voted to remain. Some 87% said their vote in 2019 was influenced by Brexit.

The study notes that the findings contradict the traditional image of the “expat” as being a Conservative voter, which had been indicated by 1990s research based on the fact that many expatriates came from strong Conservative constituencies.

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Prior to Brexit, it is also possible the balance started to change from the early 2000s as low-cost flights and the internet made it easier to move to France, Dr Collard told Connexion. The study concludes that the drop in Conservative support may not bode well for “votes for life” for Britons abroad – on which a new law is promised before the next elections in 2024.

Last year, a private member’s bill on the topic, which had gained government support, failed due to lack of time when a Conservative Brexiteer deliberately talked for too long and time ran out for debate. Britons lose the vote after 15 years away, unlike many nationalities, including the French, who keep it for life. The last three Conservative manifestos promised to end this. The rule also applied to the Brexit
vote. Dr Collard said: “I interact a lot with Britons living abroad in the EU, so the results were predictable.

The Brexit vote

“I know lifelong stalwarts of the Conservative Party who left following the Brexit vote. But you can’t claim Britons in the EU have turned away from the Tories without data.” She added: “Brexit mattered to Britons in the EU because they realised that their lives were potentially being disrupted. They felt ignored, especially those who had lost the right to vote after 15 years. You could try to justify the 15-year rule by saying if you don’t live in the UK you’re not affected by its laws, but the Brexit vote clearly affected Britons in the EU, if anything more than those in the UK."

“There was a debate in Parliament about disregarding it for the Brexit vote. They could even have bypassed the need to be registered in a UK constituency and created a virtual constituency and said that anyone living abroad with a British passport can vote. But they didn’t. It’s pretty obvious why people were cross.”

Asked why the Cameron government had not supported this, if it wanted to remain, Dr Col­lard said they may have feared being accused of bias by the Leave campaign, though they could have argued it was a one-off. “But they didn’t think they needed it. It was only as it drew near to the vote they realised it may not go Cameron’s way.”

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Suspicions of political motives would have been even more likely if they had suddenly pushed a general “votes for life” law through Parliament before the referendum, she added, as it was almost a footnote in the 2015 Queen’s Speech documents and not set as a priority. It is, however, doubtful from the figures if votes for life would have changed the referendum result, she said.

As for hopes of a new law, Dr Collard said Covid-19 is “overwhelming” the government, ma­king it a lower priority. It is “highly likely” we could get to the 2024 general election year without any change, she said. “I can’t see what would push them to do it.” She added: “The data does, however, show that the Labour leadership should have a rethink about their position on votes for life – which they have consistently opposed. Labour politicians still tend to have an archaic view of Britons abroad. They also say that the first priority is helping the many people in the UK who are disenfranchised for reasons such as homelessness.”

Dr Collard said it is possible that when they have data for Britons in the rest of the world, it will reflect the traditional picture – and the Conservatives may need to focus on mobilising them. Independent fact-checking body Full Fact estimates there are 1.24million Britons in the EU, and 4.26million elsewhere. “Basically, though, we are throwing down the gauntlet to the Conservatives. They have always said they support votes for life out of principle, not to get votes. They have a huge majority so why don’t they do it?”

Where do the Lib Dems stand?

The Lib Dems have supported votes for life in recent years, but always linked to calls for dedicated constituencies and MPs for Britons abroad, such as exist for French nationals abroad. “I’ve discussed it with people at the top of the party, and it’s the position they are pursuing. If a bill came to Parliament without overseas constituencies, would they vote for it? I don’t know.”

The idea lacks support from other parties, and may be impractical because the UK government has no accurate data about where its overseas citizens live, Dr Collard said. The French have a clearer picture as many register at consulates. The paper also looks at the role of British political parties’ branches abroad, noting that the Conservatives have the most developed network.

The Lib Dems have recently made improvements, notably becoming “quite a strong force in France’’, Dr Collard said. It notes that figures for overseas voter registration dropped sharply in 2019 compared to 2017, from 285,000 to 234,000. “It surprised me. I thought they would use the election to get back at the Conservatives.”

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