UK election: Low take-up by overseas British voters with new rights

Reasons may include the early date, lack of funding for publicity for ‘votes for life’, and voter disenchantment with politics

All Britons who have ever lived in the UK had the right to register to vote this week

Only 7% of Britons abroad registered to vote in the UK national election on Thursday (July 4) the first in which all British adults who have ever lived in the UK can participate.

In January, the rules changed and a ban on allowing Britons who had been out of the UK for 15 years or more to vote was lifted – known as ‘votes for life’.

Of an estimated 3.5 million eligible voters – from 1.5 million prior to January 16 – only about 237,000 registered in time, based on online applications to be registered this year and estimates of how many were already registered. A final figure of how many were in fact registered will not be known until later. 

Many people left it to the last minute: 17,340 registered on the final day, June 18. Even so, the numbers are lower than the previous record of 285,000 set in 2017 (when this was about 20% of those eligible).

It had been hoped that a surge would help convince UK parties of the importance of the overseas vote.

Issues that affect Britons abroad range from frozen UK pensions in Australia or Canada to high UK international university fees, problems obtaining French visas, or greatly reduced post-Brexit opportunities for young people to live and work in the EU.

Jane Golding, co-chair of advocacy group British in Europe (BiE), said official publicity about how to register abroad had seemed muted although the Lib Dems and Conservatives had made efforts to raise awareness.

Last-minute chance to vote

You also had to choose a postal or proxy vote if you could not vote in person. A proxy choice ( was open until 17:00 on June 26. 

Read more: A proxy vote is the answer for Britons in France

It may still be possible to call your UK council about an ‘emergency proxy vote’, for example if your postal ballot did not arrive. In the past, some people have reached out to local branches of the party they support for a volunteer.

The Conservatives were reported to have advertised for an ‘overseas voter registration coordinator’ to help find proxy voters for supporters but the party did not res­pond to a request for details of this.

An expert in Britons voting abroad, Sue Collard of The University of Sussex, said: “It’s nor­mal the Conserva­tives would do this as all parties face the difficulty of how to reach these people. 

“They have been fighting for years to get the vote for people overseas and now want to make people aware they can.”

However, a survey she ran in 2020 found that the disruptive effects of Brexit had greatly dented support for the Conservatives among Britons in the EU in the last elections in 2019. 

Dr Collard said that with so many other issues being talked about in the UK, the overseas vote appeared to have largely “gone off the radar” there after a flurry of interest in January.

She said she was not surprised that Labour had not provided information about its policies for Britons abroad. Historically, the party has not supported ‘votes for life’. 

She added: “I think the Conservatives have shot themselves in the foot so many times. Everyone assumes it’s a foregone conclusion that Labour will win, and that the overseas vote won’t make a difference. 

“We don’t know how they will vote, but their vote is diluted across all the constituencies. If it had been a closer thing, it might have had more impact.”

The impact of UK overseas voters

It will also be hard to assess the impact afterwards without the UK having overseas constituencies. 

It is not possible to get breakdowns of data about how Britons abroad voted, nor how many actually did – only the number of registrations is available.

“We won’t know how many postal votes arrived in time,” she said, but there are “high chances” of a postal ballot working from France. Readers report councils saying they were sending overseas ballots at dates ranging from June 11 to June 21.

Read more: Britons in France wanted for survey on postal voting 

While the number of final registrations looks likely to have slightly exceeded it, Dr Collard said it would have been “awful” if the number of overseas voters registered had been even lower than the last elections in 2019 – 233,000. 

“But at least people who wanted to vote have got the right, and overseas Britons can now write to their MP to raise issues and legitimately say ‘I am one of your constituents’.” 

Ms Golding said reasons for low registration might include limited resources allocated to raising awareness, the sudden announcement of an early election – “people thought it would be autumn and they still had time” – and disenchantment with UK politics.

“Some people feel it is too late now. Many of us could not vote in the last four national votes [general elections and the Brexit referendum].”

The impact of the overseas votes could depend on whether there are high numbers in certain marginal seats, she said. “I think, though, that the issue of overseas voters is finally being highlighted more by the press in the UK, in a more objective way. 

“As for the future, we have engaged with shadow ministers over citizens’ rights [ie. for Britons in the EU post-Brexit] and will continue to do so.”

Clarissa Killwick of Brexpats, another group for Britons abroad, said she has booked a flight to vote in person to make sure nothing is left to chance. 

“I live in Italy, which was home for many years to Harry Shindler, who campaigned long and hard for us to get the right back. He told me you are not less British the further away you are.”