For democracy to thrive the citizenry must be fully enfranchised. There is debate about expansion of the franchise, about what legal voting age should be, and about whether or not prisoners should be allowed to vote, but this piece is not about that, it’s about the existing franchise, or rather how that franchise was calculated for the EU Referendum. And what current legal cases about citizenship and enfranchisement might mean for all of us.
First, a high proportion of ex-patriot citizens living abroad were not permitted to vote. Such individuals can vote in General Elections as long as they are registered and have voted in a General Election at some time during the last 15 years, (or have been a minor when they left the UK) and these people can contact their local UK council and vote by post. But many British expats fall outside these limits, especially if they haven’t voted for a long time. Conservative government policy at the time was to repeal this so-called ’15 year rule’, because citizenship cannot simply ‘lapse’, but these citizens were still excluded from voting.
So why allow them to vote? If they couldn’t be bothered to do so before.
Well, these people are materially and immediately affected by the result (anyone who has to deal in more than just pounds sterling knows this – I know I do). Their futures, or the ones which they thought they were going to have, are likely to be impacted in a very major way. It might, literally, be a matter of life and death for many aging pensioners dependant on foreign healthcare regimes for their continued health. They cannot be blamed for not voting – voting in most Parliamentary constituencies in a GE wouldn’t make much of a difference to the result – we know that it’s the swing constituencies which make a difference – and wouldn’t impact, very much, upon their lives.
Incidentally, the way in which we exit will also be very material for UK citizens living in the EU. If, for example, we leave on the worst of terms – no deal – there are no financial passports in place for British banks and banking services so the transfer of funds from the UK into EU countries will be severely hampered and costs will increase. Many British ex-patriots, especially in southern Europe, are pensioners living on a fixed or restricted income often derived from financial assets in the UK. The ‘Leave’ vote and the subsequent settlement will, in effect, drive them back to the UK, yet they were not permitted to vote in it.
The UN estimates, that there are 1.3m. British citizens currently living in Europe. Of course, not all of them would have voted and there would have been votes on both sides.
Some expats felt so strongly about it that they took a case to law, which got all the way to the Supreme Court, but failed. Since then, however, a case has been raised in Amsterdam and it has been referred to the European Court of Justice on whether or not the EU citizenship of expats denied a vote in the Referendum can be retained by them. The ruling may also have implications for the rest of us. In theory, one outcome may be that all UK citizens with EU citizenship, i.e. before Brexit, retain their EU citizenship (here’s hoping).
But UK citizens living in Europe are not the only group who were disenfranchised. There are those UK citizens no longer on the electoral register because of registration changes introduced by the Cameron administration for students. UK citizens in the age group 18 – 24 voted 64% remain. These numbers disenfranchised cannot be known. Nor can the number excluded by the growth in short-term tenancies, where constant changes of address reduces the number of registrations. These are likely to be younger people and the poor and, again, their number is unknown. It is estimated, however, by the Electoral Commission, that, overall, some 2m people have disappeared from the electoral register since the registration changes and that these are mainly the young, the poor and those from ethnic minorities.
It’s worth remembering that the winning margin in the Referendum was some 1,269,501. So, in addition to the lies told, the laws broken and the poison released into our society, the Referendum result does not represent the ‘will of the people’, only some people (and only 51% of those ).
My own view about voting, by the way, is that the Australian model is best, people should be required, by law, to vote. Democracy is too important to allow it to slip away.