It sounds like a simple question. Who should be able to vote in general elections in Britain? But the answer is mired in inconsistency and confusion.
Consider for example two seemingly similar migrants to the UK. One comes from Windsor, Ontario in Canada, the other from just across the US border in Detroit, Michigan. Yet the Canadian citizen would be able to vote in a British general election without becoming a British national, whereas their American cousin could not.
Or what about two people who have migrated between the UK and Spain? The British citizen moved ten years ago to Spain. They live, work and pay tax there, and have even become a local councillor. The other, a Spaniard, moved to the UK a decade ago, has a highly paid job on which British tax is paid, and is chair of a local food bank. The former can vote in a parliamentary election in their adopted country, while the latter cannot.
Who should have the right to vote has become the subject of debate following a suggestion from Keir Starmer that EU citizens living in the UK should be able to. The suggestion was met with charges of anti-Brexit “gerrymandering” from some Conservative MPs. Meanwhile, the government has recently pushed through legislation that gives all British citizens living abroad the right to vote in general elections for the rest of their lives – and not, as at present, only for up to 15 years.
Behind those two suggestions lie two rather different principles that could be used to determine who has the right to vote.
One is citizenship: irrespective of where you live, if you are a British citizen you should be able to vote for the body to whom the government of your country is accountable. The other is residence. If you live in Britain, you should be able to vote for the institution that makes the laws that govern your everyday life.
Starmer’s proposal would move us in the direction of the latter principle. It is doubtless influenced by the fact that while we were a member of the EU, citizens of other EU states living in Britain had the right to vote in local (though not parliamentary) elections. Right now, the long-term future of that provision rests on whether reciprocal agreements on voting rights are reached with individual EU states.
Starmer’s idea stops short of fully embracing the principle of residency, whereby all permanent residents would be allowed to vote, regardless of citizenship – even though that is what the Scottish and Welsh governments have already both done for their local and devolved elections. As a result, our migrant from Detroit would still be unable to vote.
In contrast, by extending the right to vote to all British citizens irrespective of where they live, the Conservatives are seemingly embracing citizenship as the primary criterion of enfranchisement. Yet the right to vote is not currently confined to British citizens. One legacy of empire allows Irish and Commonwealth citizens who live in the UK just as much right to vote in parliamentary (and local) elections as any British citizen. That is why our migrant from Ontario can vote.
Despite their criticisms of Starmer, Conservative MPs don’t seem on the verge of ending this anomalous voting rule. They are surely aware of the damage such a step might do to their party’s popularity among Britain’s now substantial body of minority ethnic voters.
Herein lies the danger with a piecemeal approach to the franchise – perceptions of political advantage trump equity and consistency. Conservative MPs fear that giving EU citizens the vote would, in the wake of Brexit, hurt them. Labour MPs are suspicious of giving that right to wealthy expats who might look to the Conservatives to defend the pensions and investments on which many rely.
In such an environment, numbers get (mis-)traded too. It was suggested that enfranchising EU citizens would add as many as five million names to the electoral register, Yet at present, only about two million (non-Irish) EU citizens are registered to vote in local elections, though maybe at least another million opt not to do so. There are also probably around two million non-EU citizens of voting age in the UK – but at least half of these are Commonwealth citizens.
These numbers aren’t that different from those British citizens living abroad the government would allow the vote for life. The government estimates that this will potentially include 3.3 million people, as opposed to the 1.1 million it is thought are currently eligible to register. However, in practice, only around one in six expats (just over 200,000) were actually registered to vote at the last general election. So far, at least, enfranchising British citizens living abroad has proved more symbol than substance.
There is, of course, room for compromise. We could decide to give the vote both to all British citizens regardless of where they live and to all permanent residents in the UK regardless of citizenship. That at least would be coherent. But are any of our political parties willing to engage in a systematic and equitable approach to determining the right to vote, or will we continue to endure tinkering and partisan bickering? After all, voting is the foundation of democracy – and therefore deserves to be treated as such.