All people who live in the UK on a permanent basis, and all British citizens abroad, should be able to vote in general elections and referendums, argues a new campaign launched this week.
The call is made as it has emerged that some 8 million people are excluded from major UK polls. UK residents from countries outside the Commonwealth and Ireland, as well as most Britons abroad, cannot vote in general elections. Most British citizens living in EU countries and EU nationals in the UK were also excluded from the landmark referendum on the EU membership.
Launched by anti-Brexit group Another Europe is Possible, the campaign is supported by the3million and British in Europe, two organisations defending the rights of EU nationals in the UK and Brits in the EU. But the aim is to guarantee voting rights not only for these groups.
Every person who lives permanently in the UK and every British resident abroad should be given a say in national elections, campaigners claim. “We need to expand democracy,” said Alena Ivanova of Another Europe is Possible at an event in parliament on Wednesday.
The campaign Let Us Vote! involves an online petition and an invitation to members of parliament to sign a pledge in support of legislation that would guarantee voting rights for all.
The plan is to bring proposals to Brussels too, as no EU member state currently gives the right to vote in national elections to residents from other countries.
The decision on who can vote is typically based on citizenship, as in France, or on residency, as it happened for the Scottish referendum. “At the moment, the UK applies both of these principles, but neither consistently,” the organisers of the initiative explain.
Most British citizens can vote in all elections, except if they have been living abroad for more than 15 years (60% of British overseas).
Commonwealth citizens, including Irish, Cypriots and Maltese, can vote too.
EU nationals can vote in local and EU parliament elections under EU rules that will no longer apply after Brexit. The governments of Wales and Scotland have stated that they will maintain the voting rights of EU citizens in the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish parliament, while Westminster plans to negotiate bilateral agreements on voting rights with EU countries. So far, only one has been signed with Spain.
Citizens who are not British, Irish, from the Commonwealth or the EU remain excluded from all elections.
“The first reason of this action is to give ourselves a voice. You are not a priority for politicians if you do not have a vote,” said Jane Golding of British in Europe. A resident in Germany who has previously lived in other EU countries, Golding said that she has lost the right to vote in the UK because she has been abroad for more than 15 years. But moving across borders made it impossible to apply for another passport and gain voting rights elsewhere.
“My mum is 81 years old and she lives in the UK, so decisions on healthcare and social security in the UK affect me. My son also studies in the UK, and we have contributed to the system in the past. We need political rights as mobile citizens,” Golding argued.
Germana Canzi, an Italian who moved to Britain as a student in 1996, stayed for work and married a British, said that naturalisation is a way to obtain voting rights. But fees in the UK are high and people may face hard choices if their home country does not allow dual citizenship. Voting rights could be attached to a long-term residence status, such as the “settled status” for EU nationals, she suggested.
“Voting rights are a challenge for all EU states, not just the UK,” noted Labour MEP Claude Moraes, who participated in the meeting. He said that EU’s free movement can be problematic if people lose their voting rights as they move across borders. “The minute you dismantle the connection between citizens and the franchise, democracy is affected,” he said.
Comments from the audience also showed that the proposal raises questions and touches deeply on identity.
Olaf Stando, a Polish who has lived in the UK since he was 11, regrets not having the right to vote despite working for the Scottish National Party. He said, however, that voting rights do not automatically mean integration. “My parents,” he told the meeting, “do not vote by principle because they feel they will always be Polish, a strong sentiment they hold partly as a result of the hostile environment and media attacks to immigrants seen in the past years”. He insisted that it is important to reach out to older generations and be inclusive for democratic rights to work.
Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle suggested that the issue could be brought into the discussion on the immigration bill.
Tory MP Alberto Costa, who pioneered citizens’ rights in Westminster, talked about being excluded from the elections when he was living in Boston, USA. Costa emphasized that voting rights stand at the heart of the institutional system and while he “has not finalized” his thoughts on the matter yet, “we need to have this discussion,” he said.
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