Historic victory as UK voter registration opens to all Britons abroad

We explain what has changed, where to register and why it matters to many

Historic victory as UK voter registration opens to all Britons abroad
Published Last updated

From today (January 16) all British citizens abroad who have lived in the UK at some point in their lives have the right to register to vote in general elections and referendums, bringing to an end the unpopular ‘15-year rule’.

If you had previously lost the right to be registered due to the rule that cut off people after 15 years overseas you can re-register in a quick online process. We explain more below.

This change has been long in coming – The Connexion has been reporting on campaigns and legal challenges to this voting cut-off since 2009.

It is also a historic first: the UK has never allowed its citizens abroad ‘votes for life’.

What is the history of this and what has changed?

Britons who moved abroad used to lose their right to vote in UK general elections immediately unless they were in the services. A ‘five-year’ overseas voting limit was brought in under the Conservatives in 1985, extended to 20 in 1989, then reduced again to 15 in 2000 under Labour.

Under the ‘15-year rule’, Britons abroad could be registered for up to 15 years as overseas electors with the last UK constituency where they had been registered. They could not register from abroad if they had not been registered while living in the UK.

Registration had to be renewed annually to avoid falling off the register.

Any Briton aged 18 or over who has at some point lived in the UK now has a lifetime right to be registered to vote. Overseas voter registration will now last three years before renewal is required.

What has led to this?

There have been several campaigns, legal actions and bills.

Perhaps most associated with the fight to end the 15 year rule was Harry Shindler, a World War Two veteran living in Italy, who died aged 101 last year.

Read more: War veteran and Britons abroad campaigner Harry Shindler dies at 101

The rule was officially ended by the Elections Act 2022 but further regulations had to be made to put it into effect, which has now been done.

Campaign group British in Europe, which had wound down after Brexit, received funding last year from a UK charity to help get the measure ‘over the line’ and push for the implementation to be as simple as possible.

Read more: ‘Votes for Life’ campaign gets funding to fight for Britons abroad

What has been the role of the main UK parties?

Among the main UK parties, the Conservatives have led the way in calling for the rule to be removed in recent years, however it has been a long time coming.

It has been party policy since its manifesto for the 2015 general election.

The Liberal Democrats have also been generally supportive in calling for the change, preferably in conjunction with the creation of special overseas constituencies, in their manifestos for 2017 and 2019.

Labour has historically been largely unsupportive, raising objections including concerns over wealthy overseas Britons registering to be able to make donations to the Conservative Party (the right to donate is linked to the right to vote).

The overseas organisations for the parties have always, unsurprisingly, been generally among the more vocal supporters of removing the rule.

How will this change the number of overseas voters?

Perhaps as many as three million extra Britons are now eligible to vote and the next general election, expected in the second part of this year, is likely to see the highest-ever number of overseas Britons registered.

The previous record was in 2017, when 285,000 registered after a new online process opened and the Electoral Commission ran an awareness campaign. Before 2015 numbers had never exceeded 35,000.

Why does the vote matter for those who have been overseas for years?

Many people see voting as part of the rights of citizenship and many retain close ties to the UK; some will want to move back one day.

Many British families remain affected by UK government decisions in areas such as pensions, university fees, investments, international agreements (such as Brexit-related negotiations) and the right to return to the UK with a foreign spouse. They also remain concerned for the welfare of family members in the UK, in matters such as health and social care.

Read more: UK’s new immigration plan would bar many UK-French families

Being on the voter register was also necessary in 2016 to take part in the Brexit referendum, which led to many overseas Britons feeling angry at being left out of a decision which had a major impact on their lives.

What reactions have there been?

In a statement sent to The Connexion, the Conservatives called this the “biggest increase in the British electoral franchise since the introduction of full female suffrage in 1928”.

They say it is “the culmination of the ‘Votes for Life’ campaign led by Conservatives Abroad, the British Conservative Party’s global network of members and supporters overseas”.

Conservatives Abroad chairwoman Heather Harper said: “This new measure puts Britain back on a par with democracies such as the USA, France, Italy and New Zealand in recognising the importance of their citizens worldwide.”

Labour International, an organisation for Labour party members overseas, also contacted us, paying tribute to Mr Shindler’s “tireless campaigning”.

They said their ‘electoral registration committee’ can offer practical advice on general-election@labourinternational.net.

The chairwoman of Lib Dems in France, Jenny Shorten, said: “I’m so pleased we can now say ‘yes you can’ to everyone who has been waiting to register to vote from overseas, some for many, many years.

“We know from our surveys and helpline messages just how important it is to Britons abroad that they can have their say at UK elections. It has been a long time coming but we are finally there.“

The party has a new website with tips, at britsabroad.vote.

How do I register?

The process of applying to be registered typically takes around ten minutes and starts at gov.uk/register-to-vote. If possible, have to hand your UK passport, National Insurance number and details of the address where you were last registered to vote.

If you have never been registered, you will need to prove the fact you previously lived in the UK, at a certain date and address.

We will look at the steps further in a future article.

Related articles

What changes in France in 2024 in politics and elections?