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Expats want 15 new MPs for Brits living abroad

Since Brexit, hundreds of thousands of Brits living abroad have struggled with everything from access to pensions to getting official documents for emigrating. After years of feeling out of sight, out of mind, some are calling for a new approach: overseas constituencies. 


September 14 2023, 10.51am

Alex, 46, has been living in Germany since the Brexit referendum, and they took the results harder than most. Among other personal factors, the impacts that results were going to have on their life, combined with the fact that nobody in the UK was paying attention to their concerns, pushed their mental health to breaking point. “The whole situation put me in the psych ward for a few months,” they said. 

Returning to normal life was never possible – their career as a video game writer involved moving to different countries to pursue job opportunities, something made significantly more difficult without freedom of movement. Alex felt like nobody in the UK listened to or addressed their concerns – a feeling they have yet to shake.

Alex isn’t the only one. Around 90% of the estimated 900,000 Brits living in the EU feel politically unrepresented after Brexit, according to a report published in January this year. Even more of the respondents, 95%, felt like they did not trust the UK government to protect their interests. Tanja Bueltman, a professor of migration history at the University of Strathclyde and a prominent commentator, authored the report - and tellsThe Lead there are two main reasons why Brits living abroad feel unrepresented in politics. 

The first is that those living abroad for more than 15 years lose their right to vote in UK elections, as was also the case during the EU referendum. A bill, The Elections Act of 2022, seeks to remove that limit, and although it has royal assent, it has yet to be enacted. A total of 3.5 million Brits living overseas would be eligible to vote if the 15-year rule were abolished, according to government estimates.

Sue, 69, is one of those people. Having lived in Spain for 16 years, she recently lost her right to vote in UK elections. Even when she could vote, however, she said, “My MP couldn't have cared less about his overseas constituents”, and that they had no understanding of the issues Brits abroad face. That is the other reason why Brits abroad feel unrepresented in politics.

“It's not just that a lot of [Brits abroad] didn't have a say in the referendum, they've really struggled to know who to turn to as the negotiations were unfolding."

The second it that even those who can vote, feel their MPs don’t understand the issues they are facing. “For those who have not lost their right to vote yet, the disillusionment will stem primarily from feeling not well represented. So even though they can still vote, they don’t necessarily feel that their MP is interested in their needs,” says Bueltman. She clarifies that this isn’t a criticism of those MPs, as the needs of Brits living abroad are “probably genuinely difficult” to address. 

“It's one thing to have the right to vote, but what difference will it make to their lives?” says Michaela Benson, a professor in sociology at Lancaster University. Benson has spent 20 years working with British citizens in Europe, and agrees that MPs in the UK aren’t necessarily equipped to deal with the issues they have. “A lot of people would explain that one of the reasons that they'd never used their right to vote was because they weren't voting on things that were of interest to them,” she says. 

Issues that impact Brits abroad cover everything from access to pensions for those who are retired or close to it, through to getting official documents for emigrating. “It's not just that a lot of [Brits abroad] didn't have a say in the referendum, they've really struggled to know who to turn to as the negotiations were unfolding, and when they then subsequently face challenges in respect to securing their status in the countries that they live in,” says Benson.

A solution proposed by both is the introduction of overseas constituencies. That could mean, for example, the MP for Northern Europe. Several countries across the world already have a similar system, including France, the Dominican Republic, and Peru. Proponents of a system like this argue that it improves democratic representation.

Earlier this year, a campaign was launched in the UK pushing for the introduction of overseas constituencies. The campaign is fronted by Unlock Democracy, a non-partisan lobby group pushing for democratic reform, and supported by New Europeans UK, a group which supports EU citizens in the UK. (Benson is a trustee at the latter, and her research has been used to inform the campaign.)

“I know from my time as an MP that at the very end of the electoral register, there would be some people who were abroad, and MPs had very little contact with those people at all,” says Tom Brake, a former Lib Dem MP and the director of Unlock Democracy. Having been the Lib Dem Brexit spokesperson between 2017 and 2019, Brake adds that “one of the completely neglected areas of impact of Brexit was UK citizens in the EU.”

The campaign is something that Alex and Sue are supportive of, with Sue being the chair of Bremain in Spain – a group officially supporting the campaign. Alex was used to regularly interacting with their MPs when they lived in the UK, and would take the chance to go to a surgery in Berlin if something like that was offered. At the same time, they think it depends on the design of the system. “If it's just gonna be like one person for all overseas British people all across the world then that's probably not going to help,” Alex says.

The system proposed by Unlock Democracy is the introduction of around 10-15 constituencies. Brake said that this wouldn’t be a significant enough number of MPs to have a massive impact on national politics, while still offering some representation to those who need it. MPs voted into these constituencies would then work directly with voters to fight for the things that matter to them in the UK parliament. Brake said the MPs “will then develop knowledge and expertise that is going to be pretty common to UK citizens in the EU, but indeed beyond that.”

As part of the campaign, Unlock Democracy is directly lobbying politicians. The introduction of overseas constituencies is official Lib Dem Policy, and some MPs and peers from both the Labour and Conservative parties have shown interest in the campaign. Brake is encouraging people living abroad to write to their MPs, whether they’re on the electoral register or not, and is looking for case studies from people living abroad of how an overseas constituency might help them. 

Luke, 31, has lived in Berlin for six years, and he feels politically disenfranchised. He thinks the introduction of overseas constituencies for “significantly sized populations” would be a good idea. “I can imagine that there are some pretty small constituencies in the UK that have a lot better representation,” he says. 

Similarly, having lived in Paris for around four years, Caroline feels frustrated with her political representation. She supports overseas constituencies, saying Brits abroad “face a very specific set of circumstances”, and that “the more things that you're able to participate in democratically” can only be a good thing. 

For Olivia, 27, voting is only a small part of political representation, even though she does support the introduction of overseas constituencies. She is particularly interested in climate issues, and wants to get involved in climate activism. As it becomes increasingly criminalised, however, she is scared of how getting involved might impact her residency, as she wants to stay in Germany long-term. “I feel like because I don't have citizenship, I can't be as politically active because I don't want to break the rules,” she explains. 

Looking at one of the more recent countries to implement overseas constituencies, France, might imply, however, that the enthusiasm among would-be voters may not be as high as among campaigners for the vote. Dr Cédric Pellen, a political scientist at the University of Strasbourg, has been researching how politically represented French people living abroad feel, particularly in Germany. From the people he talked to for his research, he found out that most people just didn’t care about the overseas constituencies.

“For many of those living abroad their only political representation is through the UK parliament, so it should be as effective as possible and that means overseas constituencies.”

“The turnout rate was very low from the beginning – less than 20% of the voters abroad went to vote in the parliamentary elections,” says Pellen. This is a contrast to the 50% who usually vote in the French presidential elections, he adds. Rather than voting in French elections, most of the people Pellen talked to had issues with administration, as well as the housing and job markets, and were more concerned with representation in Germany. 

Pellen highlighted a number of criticisms of overseas constituencies. “It's very difficult to be representative of people who are not in France because you are voting on laws which are not going to apply to them,” he said. Similarly, if a constituent has a problem specific to a country, there’s very little that can be done in the French parliament to solve that issue. He adds, in this case, that it could be a diplomatic issue as well to take a stance on a particular country.

Brake says that out of the people living overseas he’s spoken with, most view overseas constituencies as a way to boost effective representation. A turnout of 20%, he adds, would also be significantly more than the roughly 7% of voters registered in the 2019 election. Towards the idea that overseas residents would prefer representation in their host country, Brake says it’s “probably true”, but “for many of those living abroad their only political representation is through the UK parliament, so it should be as effective as possible and that means overseas constituencies.”

Voting rights for those from the UK living abroad might also be a more salient issue than in France due to Brexit. Ten times as many overseas voters were registered for the 2019 election in comparison to 2015. 

Representation is something Luke wants in Germany. He campaigned earlier this year for the climate neutrality referendum in Berlin, though was unable to actually vote. Long-term, however, he could see himself returning to the UK, and so maintaining some say in the democracy of the UK is important to him. Part of Caroline’s political disillusionment stems from the fact that she still spends a lot of time in Surrey, and feels connected to the area. “I find it a little bit frustrating, although entirely understandable, that I can't vote in the local elections,” she says. 

There is a general consensus among those living abroad that a voting system based on citizenship is a little outdated. Instead, they see a residence-based system as more representative.

“It feels like if you're there for as long as an election cycle then you should have a say in that next coming cycle,” says Luke. Although he can’t pick out the exact requirements for such voting rights, he says that there should probably be some way to distinguish between someone in a city for something like a semester abroad, and somebody who is more integrated.

“If you've resided for, say, more than five years, then you should at least be able to vote in some elections, if not all, because you're there, you're paying taxes, you're contributing to the economy,” Alex says.

“If you're planning to stay, and want to be a part of that country, I feel that it would be nice to be able to participate in its democracy,” adds Caroline.

There’s also an agreement that this should apply to the UK too. Although Scotland and Wales have resident-based voting rights in local and national elections, the same isn’t true for England and Northern Ireland. This can also have an impact on people outside of their right to vote. In the UK, for example, it’s not possible to have an “excellent” credit score if you aren’t on the electoral register. 

With immigration and emigration at record highs in the UK in 2022, it seems the trend is towards more globalisation, and more people living in places where they don’t have proper political representation. To prevent vast numbers of people from being politically disenfranchised, adapting our voting systems to take migration into account will become increasingly important. 

For Brits living abroad, if that’s through the introduction of overseas constituencies, then Alex may have a new calling in life. “If they did introduce overseas constituencies, I would be tempted to put myself forward as a candidate,” they say. 

The campaign is currently gathering petition signatures and letters to MPs, and is set to bring it proposal before the all-party parliamentary group on citizen's right on 17th October. 

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