Budget statement is about the last place you might expect to find the announcement of a significant change to the franchise, but so it has turned out. Tucked away among the big plans and bigger numbers in this year’s “red book”, the collection of documents published by the Treasury, we find paragraph 2.41. It states: “Overseas Electors – the government is providing an additional £2.5m to remove the limit preventing British citizens who live overseas from voting after 15 years.”
The news shouldn’t, however, come as a huge surprise because the move was promised in the 2015, 2017 and 2019 Conservative manifestos, the most recent one pledging: “We will make it easier for British expats to vote in parliamentary elections, and get rid of the arbitrary 15-year limit on their voting rights.”
Although the new limit, if any, is unspecified, it is bound to be a controversial move, and potentially an important one. Before a drive to register expats in 2015 and a rush to qualify to vote for the 2016 EU referendum, the number of voting expats was about 35,000, roughly half the size of a parliamentary constituency. Now that has risen to 233,000 people, equivalent to about four Commons seats. A number of legal actions and, possibly, some partisan interest by the Conservatives has now put “votes for life” firmly on the agenda. Expatriates were not permitted to vote at all before 1985, when a five-year limit was applied, and it has varied ever since before settling at the present level in the early 2000s.