Britons who live in France and around the world for more than 15 years will from now on retain their right to vote in the UK for life if previously registered or resident in the country, after a new law received Royal Assent yesterday (April 28).
This could mean newly acquired voting rights for one million British people living in Europe, and up to a total of three million around the world. There is no readily available data on the exact number of people in France who are affected.
The Connexion talked with an expert in UK and French politics about the reasons behind this change, as well as why it might be more to do with party donations than votes.
We also heard from readers living in France on whether they would consider using this new right.
What has changed?
Previously, British citizens lost the right to vote 15 years after moving away from the UK.
This sometimes meant that British residents of France, who cannot vote in presidential and legislative elections unless they are also citizens, were sometimes unable to vote anywhere since they stopped being EU nationals.
The change in the law, which comes as part of the UK government’s Elections Bill, means that British citizens will be able to vote in the constituency where they were last registered and/or living when they left the UK, subject to showing proof of having previously been a resident there to officials.
Reacting to the new law today, some Connexion readers said that they would choose to vote in a UK election if they felt that party policies affected their life in France.
However, Mick Watson said: “I choose to live in France so why would I want to vote in the UK?
“I don’t trust any of them. [In] this day and age it seems all politicians are more interested in finding fault in the other parties instead of coming up with some of their own policies.”
Clare Price-Jones was undecided as to whether she would vote, especially as she has recently obtained French nationality.
She commented: “I feel so bitter towards the country of my birth because none of the precarity we were left with [as a result of Brexit] was ever taken into account by Britain; we were treated like dirt I feel.
“No provision was negotiated; it all had to be led by France and Franco-British organisations.
“When you consider that French nationals living elsewhere in Europe have actual representation in the Senate!
However, “I would seriously consider using my UK vote in order to reverse Brexit or oust the corrupt scoundrels in power currently,” she said.
What will be the impact of the new law?
Some three million British nationals living abroad could benefit from the votes for life change.
However, Dr Susan Collard, who is a senior lecturer in French politics and contemporary European studies at the University of Sussex, told The Connexion that she is doubtful that these additional voters will have a significant impact on election results.
“There is no way of knowing, and we probably won’t be able to find out,” she said, “because people are voting in their original constituency and their votes are assimilated into all the others and not counted separately.
However, “I would say that most political scientists would say that the impact is going to be negligible. From my research I would say that there won't be an extra three million people voting in each election; it won’t be massive.
“There will be a small number of people who were very politically active before they moved abroad and want to carry on voting, but I think other people were so disgusted with Brexit that they turned their backs on the UK government and said that they did not want to have anything to do with UK politics anymore.
“It will be very interesting to see what kind of awareness campaigns will be run because some people living abroad are fairly unreachable.
“Other people in France are more interested in taking on French citizenship as a response to Brexit,” Dr Collard added.
Will the right to votes for life include referendums?
The UK government states that this new right will apply to “parliamentary elections".
Dr Collard said: “Referendums are always dealt with as separate pieces of legislation, so there is not any general rule about them as they are called on an ad hoc basis.
“In the two referendums that we have had in the UK, they just took the parliamentary register, and I’m pretty sure that that is what would happen if there were to be another one, so I can’t see why Britons abroad wouldn’t be able to vote.
“It would be just too complicated to exclude these people.
“If there were another independence referendum in Scotland, it would not include overseas voters because Scotland only ever uses residency as the basis of its electoral register.”
Why has the UK government done this now?
Dr Collard told The Connexion: “The official reason is about giving British citizens their full citizenship rights, but no one really believes that.
“The question of Britons voting from abroad has always been driven by the Conservative Party and there have always been suspicions from the other parties that the reason they were doing it was because they would gain from it.
“Labour and the Lib Dems have argued that this is all about getting more votes for the Conservatives, and the reason for that is that, until the turn of the century, ‘expats’ or people who moved abroad were generally more affluent.
“It wasn’t like Italy or Portugal where you see people driven abroad for economic reasons.
“It was the stereotype of the well-heeled middle classes. Many more wealthy people also moved abroad in the 1970s, when the Labour government introduced very high income tax bills.
“So when the first very timid legislation allowing people who moved abroad five years to vote was passed, there were lots of people already living abroad to avoid tax. Tax exiles were assumed to be more favourable to a Conservative government.
“However, things have since moved on. With the arrival of the internet, cheap flights, retirement migration and mobility within the EU the sociological profile of people living in Europe has completely changed.
“It would no longer be reasonable to assume that most of those people would be Conservative voters, but the parties seem to have been locked into this ideological debate since the 1980s.
Research has also shown that, since Brexit “there has been a huge backlash, even among very staunch Tory voters, against the party” from people living in Europe.
However, what has also emerged from research on the subject is that “it looks like the Conservative Party is much more interested in the increase in donations that will come, because with more people on the electoral register you massively increase the number of people who can donate to parties.
“So it’s not just about three million voters but about three million donors.”
Dr Collard added that this sense is supported by the idea that the party has “done nothing to improve the actual act of voting for Britons abroad. Being able to send a postal vote from Australia is virtually impossible unless you want to pay for a courier.
“That reinforces that it is much more about donations than about votes,” she said.
When will I be able to exercise my right to vote next?
The next UK general election can be held no later than January 24, 2025, and so in theory, Britons living abroad hoping to exercise their newly-returned rights still have a few years to wait.
However, a vote could be called earlier under various different circumstances and May 2024 is thought to be a likely date.
Further legislation will now need to be passed to iron out the details of this initial bill, and to work out the logistics of processes such as overseas voter registration.