Election analysts do not usually pay any attention to overseas voters. Until recently, it was assumed that ‘Brits abroad’ were not interested in voting in UK elections, and the very low level of their electoral registration meant they were of no interest to political parties. But since the introduction of on-line registration with IER, figures have soared exponentially. Overseas registration reached over a quarter of a million for the EU referendum, for which there was an unprecedented level of mobilization, especially amongst British citizens living in the EU.
My research confirms what intuition would anyway suggest: that they voted massively to Remain, and that since last Summer, many have taken very angrily to social media to resist Brexit and fight a battle for their EU citizenship rights. The highlighting of their plight in recent public debate is testimony to the success of their collective campaigning skills.
The June election unexpectedly now offers a small but not insignificant window of opportunity to overseas anti-Brexiteers registered in a handful of marginal constituencies, to influence these election outcomes, because they are more numerous than the size of the current majority. Most of them will be prepared to vote for whichever party has the most anti-Brexit stance, and many former committed Tories have already switched allegiance. So in constituencies such as Gower, Derby North & Croydon Central (all Conservative), overseas voters might decide to sanction them, thus ‘tipping’ the vote against them.
UK Overseas Electors in selected marginal constituencies
Overseas electors could make a difference not just in the examples given above, but in some of the less marginal seats targeted by the main parties such as Hove or Brighton Kemptown, or those like Vauxhall, Brentford & Isleworth and Hampstead & Kilburn in the London area, where the number of overseas electors is much higher than elsewhere. Most of these constituencies have MPs who were Remainers in 2016, either Labour or Conservative, but only a few of them went on to vote against triggering Article 50, like Rupa Huq in Ealing Central & Acton, and Daniel Zeichner in Cambridge.
This adds a new dimension to how the politics of Brexit are already playing a role in this election: Open Britain has launched a 20/20 key seat strategy of attack and defence of MPs identified for their stance on the EU, and campaigner Gina Miller has launched a crowd-funded tactical voting campaign to support candidates who will push for a real final vote in Parliament on the Brexit deal. While the Labour Party is struggling to find a coherent position, Tony Blair is urging Remainers to put aside party allegiance and vote on grounds of their Brexit stance, and the LibDems are attempting a political comeback by capturing the votes of staunch Remainers, whatever their prior partisan attachments, with the manifesto promise of a second EU referendum.
It remains to be seen whether overseas electors will hear or heed the various calls to tactical voting, but given the strength of feeling and the intensity of social media activism, most will probably seize the opportunity. Now is surely the time for Labour and the LibDems to abandon their traditional reluctance to embrace overseas voters, derived from outdated stereotypes of ‘ex-pats’ as Tory voting tax exiles, well-heeled pensioners on the Spanish and French Rivieras, or globe-trotting business tycoons. The sociological and political profile of Britons abroad is far more diverse than the assumed popular view suggests, and all the parties need to wake up to the realities of British emigration in the 21st century.
This will be especially important if the Conservative Party’s pledge to abandon the ’15 year rule’ and grant ‘Votes For Life’ to overseas electors does eventually make it on to the statute book. The Cabinet Office estimates that up to 3m British citizens living abroad could be eligible to vote under the new legislation: their votes will start to really matter. Yet the silence on this issue of the other party manifestos, just published, shows that they still do not support the proposal.
Political considerations notwithstanding, there is an important debate to be had about the normative and practical implications of this bill when it finally makes it on to the parliamentary agenda.
But meanwhile, British citizens who left the UK more than 15 years ago continue to consider themselves unjustly, even illegally, disenfranchised, just as they were for the EU referendum. Having been assured by the previous government that their voting rights would be granted before 2020, they see the calling of a snap election as the final snub in a long and bitter battle that has been waged by ex-pat activists, both on-line and through the courts.
For those living in the EU, their frustrations are compounded by the prospect of losing their EU citizenship rights following a vote from which they were excluded. They have built alliances with other campaigning anti-Brexiteers, and together, they have achieved a high degree of on-line mobilization. Those who still have a vote will be keen to use it to best effect.
Ironically however, an increased Conservative majority that reinforces the personal authority of the Prime Minister will probably increase the chances of ‘Votes For Life’ becoming law, since it faced considerable resistance in the last Parliament. This leaves current overseas voters with a choice between a rock and a hard place. But they do, at least, have a vote.
Dr. Sue Collard is a Senior Lecturer in French Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex.