In elections that are too close to call, every vote counts. With a likely low margin between the two main parties in the UK election, the vote of British expats may suddenly become more important than before. Indeed, David Cameron declared at the end of 2014 that the expat vote “could hold the key to the election”.
And yet, you’d have to be listening very hard to spot a single reference to expat voters in this election campaign.
It’s not hard to figure out why. Historically, British citizens living abroad have always had very low rates of registration and participation, and they still do; Sam Gyimah, minister for the constitution, has claimed in parliament that overseas electors are some of the least represented on the electoral register.
As a result, politicians have generally been able to comfortably ignore expats altogether. Only recently have they starting to pay more attention – and it’s still not much.
Gone too long
British overseas nationals have only be able to vote since 1985, and many still think they forfeit their voting rights once they leave the country. Others feel that because they live outside the UK, they should not vote in British elections. Some prefer to get involved in elections in their country of residence.
Still, data from the Electoral Commission indicated that more 90,000 expats were registered to vote by 2015. That’s a significant improvement on past numbers – though it’s still only a very small proportion of the millions of expats who are eligible.
To be able to register to vote, expats must have been previously registered to vote in a constituency and must not have lived abroad for longer than 15 years. Unlike France, where citizens living abroad never lose their right to vote in their country’s national elections, British expats lose their right to vote after 15 years of living abroad.
What all this means is not easy to say. Trying to summarise what 5.5m people know about politics is a very tricky task, made worse by the fact that we ourselves know little about them in general. But from what we do know, it looks like many British expats have few expectations of politicians and the outcome of the election – demonstrating that they may not be so different from many UK-based British citizens after all.
And some expats have taken matters into their own hands.
James Franklyn Jackson, a retired civil servant living in France, is standing for election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip to highlight the fact that although he cannot vote in the election he is allowed to stand as an MP. He was also able to compare the situation of British expat to that of French expats, who have votes for life, dedicated deputies (MPs) in 11 overseas constituencies since 2012, 12 senators, and even their own government minister.
A significant number of British expats are pensioners, and many are unhappy with recent British policies of pension freeze and the removal of the winter fuel allowance from those living in warmer climates.
That policy also infuriates older British expats living across the channel, since the definition of “warmer countries” includes France – which has significant mountain regions and areas that are at the same latitude as the south of England.
Overall, many expats feel neglected. Take the issue of a potential Brexit, for instance. The 2m British citizens living in another EU member state would be significantly affected if the UK left the EU. They could suddenly have to apply for visas, residence permits and drivers’ licences, and might face major new restrictions on their social security and pension rights.
Yet this aspect of the issue is hardly ever discussed (former attorney general Dominic Grieve’s warning that the Britons scattered around the EU would become illegal immigrants being a rare exception).
So with British politicians apparently not concerned about them, British expats may understandably feel that they have little to gain from getting involved and casting a ballot in this election.