When history teachers talk about the extension of the franchise, they tend to stop somewhere between Emily Davison throwing herself under a horse and 1928, when unmarried poorer women were finally allowed to vote. But if mainstream politicians thought a bit more imaginatively, we could be on the cusp of a third great extension of the franchise – to more than three million potential new voters.
I’m talking, of course, about EU citizens. So long as they can’t vote, perhaps it’s understandable that Labour politicians don’t seem to notice the vast Eastern European working class that hands them their drink at the bar and tidies up after they spill it. It’s not surprising that the Conservatives haven’t found time to woo the middle class French of London, or extoll the virtues of the vast army of crop pickers that keep Britain’s farms running. The question of EU citizens’ right to remain in the UK is treated as an ethical dilemma, or a negotiating tactic, but not something that could sink your budding parliamentary career.
But picture this scenario. If a mainstream political party unilaterally granted British citizenship – and the corresponding voting rights – they would have the potential to change the whole political dynamic of the country in an instant.
Using data compiled by Rob Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University, which was originally used for the 2015 election*, in partnership with the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity, it’s possible to sketch out how such an extension of the franchise could transform a candidate’s chances.
First, the potential for enfranchisement is massive. EU citizens, for the most part, cannot vote. In Ealing, a London suburb, where the Labour MP Rupa Huq is currently defending a majority of just 274 from the Tories, there were an estimated 28,632 Poles in 2015. But of those, only 1,423 could vote.
In Lambeth, an area home to the pro-Brexit Labour MP Kate Hoey’s Vauxhall constituency, just 1,418 Spanish, Portuguese and Polish residents voted in 2015. If the franchise was extended, there would be 20,025 votes. In other words, three EU nationalities alone have more votes than Hoey’s majority.
But this is not just a London story. Take Boston, the town that voted most fervently for Brexit. Just 259 Poles and Lithuanians could vote in 2015 – not much for any politician to worry about. But enfranchise all those EU nationals, and the Polish-Lithuanian vote rises to 6,744. This is somewhat larger than the standing Conservative MP Matt Warman’s majority.
Other provincial towns and cities show a similar pattern. Just 5 per cent of Poles and 2 per cent of Lithuanians in Peterborough are enfranchised. If all Polish and Lithuanian nationals had the vote (and all exercised their right), they would represent nearly a quarter of voter turnout.
Of course, there are huge caveats to be made. First, assuming Polish or French voters will automatically form a bloc vote is glib, and patronising. Second, there is the fact that some EU nationals might not wish to exercise their voting rights. Third, even if EU nationals felt some immediate obligation towards the party that had granted them the vote, this is hardly a guarantee of loyalty in the future. In true British style, preoccupations of class and income could soon come to the fore.
Still, if this is an imperfect exercise, it nevertheless has a simple point. There are millions of EU citizens in this country who wish to remain in the UK, and if they do so, they may well get a vote one day. That could be a day of reckoning for any politician that has used them as a bargaining chip.
*Ford projected the population of different nationalities to estimate the 2015 count, and then estimated the number of voters based on the take up of British citizenship. His original report can be found here.