With opinion polls predicting an oncoming electoral shellacking for the Conservatives, it is unsurprising that Rishi Sunak is hoping to find extra voters wherever he can. CCHQ’s latest bet is in the two million or so Britons living overseas who have just had their lifetime voting rights restored.
On 16 January, rules came into operation allowing all British citizens living abroad to register to vote in general elections. Labour introduced a 15-year limit on voting rights for expats in 2001. Repealing that limit has been a long-standing Tory manifesto commitment. Doing so with last year’s Elections Act has more than doubled the number of eligible overseas voters from 1.4 million to 3.5 million.
This represents the biggest expansion of the franchise since the rights of male and female voters were equalised in 1928. Michael Gove was keen to couch the decision in highly principled terms, suggesting the decision has ‘once again shown’ that the Conservatives are ‘the party of democracy’.
Unsurprisingly, some are unhappy that the Tories have added, with little fanfare, millions of potential voters who aren’t even British residents. Paul Scriven, a Lib Dem peer, has asked how it can be right that someone who has not lived in the UK for 50 years can have a say over policies that do not affect them. What can expats know of the state of the NHS from sunning themselves at their Spanish villa?
One might suggest the Lord doth protest too much. An obvious reason why the Liberal Democrats have long opposed extending overseas voting – and why the Conservatives have been so keen on it – is the expectation that expats will vote Tory. Reducing immigration or cutting taxes is too much like hard work. Enfranchising a legion of Essex Men from the Costa del Sol seems a simpler path to re-election.
There is something to this stereotype. Studies