British Citizens Living Abroad to Get “Votes for Life”

Long-term expats will regain the right to vote in UK general elections later this year – a reform preceded by years of campaigning.

It is a topic that has caused considerable consternation among British expats: Up till now, UK citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years were purged from the electoral rolls, barring them from voting. 

Finally, this is about to change: The UK Government has pledged to abolish the 15-year rule and grant all Britons living overseas the lifelong right to vote in general elections in the constituencies where they last lived before moving away.

For the roughly 12,000 British nationals living in Austria – 4,500 of whom are based in Vienna – this is good news. Around 3 million UK expats worldwide are currently disenfranchised due to the 15-year-rule, according to evaluations made by the British Cabinet Office in 2017. Although it is unclear how many in Austria are affected, the UK Embassy told Metropole that voting rights are a pressing topic for many within Austria’s British diaspora. 

One of them is Simon Ballam, a business school lecturer and journalist who has been living outside the UK for close to 50 years. For him, the 2016 Brexit referendum was a turning point in his relationship with his home country’s voting rights: “That was the first time I became very aware of not having the right to vote. I was suddenly really angry to find that me and 1.3 million Britons living in Europe did not have a say in the decision about the direction in which the country should move.” 

Indeed, the Brexit vote seems to have brought expat voting rights to the forefront: Since 2015, the number of Britain’s registered overseas voters has exploded, with a record of 285,000 in the 2017 general election.

Many Times Is the Charm

The issue is hardly new though: Before 1985, British subjects living abroad could not vote at all. That year, legislation passed allowing them to do so for the first five years outside of the UK; that time limit was extended to 20 years in 1989, before the current rules were enacted in 2002.

In the past, activists such as Harry Shindler have contested the controversial 15-year-limit but were unsuccessful despite repeated government pledges to overturn the law. 

This time, however, Westminster seems to be following through: In order to pass the so-called Votes for Life Bill, an additional £ 2.5 million was allocated in the 2021 Budget. As a Treasury spokesperson told the British Embassy in Vienna, legislation will be presented to parliament later this year.

However, long-term expats like Ballam remain sceptical. Despite a strong desire to make his voice heard, he is resigned to what he calls “pessimistic reservation” about the planned reform, seeing that re-enfranchisement has been shelved several times by previous administrations. 

If the law granting “votes for life” passes, however, those affected will get their chance to vote in the next general election, scheduled for 2024. Until then, it remains to be seen whether the UK Government lives up to its promises – this time.

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Isabella Eckerstorfer
Isabella Eckerstorfer is currently an editorial intern at Metropole while completing her MA in Journalism & Communication at the University of Vienna, where she also studies English. A bibliophile and coffee addict, she can usually be found in a coffee shop at any time of day.

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