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Welsh voters living abroad regain the right to vote

16 Jan 2024 5 minute read
Voting ballot box.

Luke James, Brussels

Welsh people living around the world who have been disenfranchised for decades will today regain their right to vote as “unjust” limits on overseas voting are lifted in time for the next UK general election.

Around 3.5 million more UK citizens are now eligible to register as a result of changes to electoral law which end the 15-year limit on voting from abroad and gives expats a “vote for life.”

The move has been welcomed by the Welsh diaspora and campaigners who say every citizens should have the right to vote, but opposition parties have argued it increases the risk of electoral fraud and is designed to benefit the Conservatives financially.

The 15-year limit became particularly controversial during the Brexit referendum, when the majority of UK citizens living in the EU had no say over a decision which had a direct impact on their lives.

Welshman Jeremy Wall, who moved to Brussels in 1983 to work for the European Commission’s after studying forestry at Bangor University, was among them.

‘Personal injustice’

“Irrespective of the potential difference ex-pat votes could then have made to the result, which was fairly close, I felt just as much a sense of personal injustice, disenfranchisement and powerlessness,” he told Nation.Cymru.

“All my colleagues and friends from other EU member states were shocked to know that long-term UK ex-pats could not vote.”

Now retired in Belgium, the Gwent native said he keeps up with events in Wales and the UK, especially when it comes to the environment, and plans to register to vote in the next general election.

“I shall certainly be availing of the opportunity to vote again and will fight to retain that right,” he added. “After all, life-long allegiance should be accompanied by life-long rights, irrespective of geography.”

Under the previous rules, around 1.4 million people living abroad were eligible to vote. But only 230,000 registered to do so ahead of the last general election.

If all 3.5 million people now eligible to register took up that right, it would add an average of 5,384 extra voters per constituency.

However, the UK Government believes only around 300,000 will register.

‘Historic’

British in Europe, the campaign group which fought for the change and is now leading a registration drive, said polling shows the “historic” move will increase support for progressive policies.

Support for the Conservatives among overseas voters has collapsed since Brexit, according to a University of Sussex study which found 85% would have voted for Labour or the Liberal Democrats in the last general election.

But Labour has opposed the change, arguing loose registration rules could allow overseas voters to choose marginal constituencies and warning it will open the floodgates to foreign donations.

“This is surely a partisan proposal,” Lord Anderson of Swansea told Peers last month. “It will benefit the Conservative Party, according to many estimates.”

“What expectations do the government have about the number of donors, some large, who may suddenly surface as a result of these proposals? In their dying days, this government have brought forward these proposals. My hope is that an incoming Labour government will speedily reverse them.”

This is the fourth time the rules on overseas voting have been changed in the last 40 years.

Originally, only people serving in the armed forces their families were able to vote from abroad.

Margaret Thatcher

In 1985, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government changed the rules to allow UK citizens living abroad to remain on the electoral register for 5 years.

The franchise was further extended under John Major to anyone who had been living abroad for less than 20 years, but that was subsequently reduced to 15 years during Tony Blair’s first term as Prime Minister.

The US, France, Italy and Canada are among countries which also allow lifetime overseas voting.

French and Italian citizens living abroad have their own dedicated MP, a system which democracy campaigners in the UK say is needed to make today’s change meaningful.

“As long as overseas voters can be effectively ignored by their MPs, many may choose not to exercise their right to vote at all,” said Tom Brake, the former Liberal Democrat MP who is now director of cross-party pressure group Unlock Democracy.

“The best way to incorporate overseas voters into our democracy on an equal basis with everyone else is to follow the model of France and Italy and bring in overseas constituencies that elect dedicated representatives.”

Under the new rules, overseas voters can register to vote in the last constituency they were registered to vote or the last constituency they lived in before emigrating.

They will be able to vote in UK general elections and Westminster by-elections, but not elections to the Senedd, Scottish Parliament or local councils.

Brake believes today’s change could open the door to an extension of the franchise for Senedd elections in future.

“If the demand from Welsh citizens who live abroad for a right to vote is strong, the Welsh government would need very convincing arguments to turn them down,” he said.

Click here for more information about registering to vote from overseas. 


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Frank
Frank
1 month ago

Damned ridiculous!!!! If these ex-pats have decided to desert their homeland their voting rights should be forfeited. We don’t get to vote on their affairs wherever they are in the world! Desperate politicians changing rules again in the hope of gaining votes.

Barry Pandy
Barry Pandy
1 month ago
Reply to  Frank

Damn right!

Unless they pay taxes in this country then no representation without taxation!

Paul ap Gareth
Paul ap Gareth
1 month ago
Reply to  Barry Pandy

Unless you’re a citizen of a commonwealth country you don’t get a vote in the UK regardless of how much tax you pay.

Leigh Richards
Leigh Richards
1 month ago
Reply to  Frank

Sadly Frank poverty and unemployment has been forcing Welsh people to leave their homeland for a better life for a century and half at least. By the way don’t assume Welsh exiles are Tories

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