What Britons in Europe need to know about the UK government’s ‘votes for life’ pledge

It's been promised before, but now the UK government says it will act to ensure that British citizens living abroad do not lose their right to vote in the UK even if they have been abroad for over 15 years. Here's what we know about the proposals.

What Britons in Europe need to know about the UK government's 'votes for life' pledge
Photo: Leon Neal/AFP

The move was first announced in the Queen’s Speech earlier this month, with further details announced by the British government today.

But what exactly are the changes and what does “votes for life” really mean?

What are ‘votes for life’?

The new measures will allow British citizens living in another country to continue participating in the democratic process in the UK by retaining their right to vote – no matter where they live or how long they have been outside of the UK.

Currently, British citizens lose their voting rights after living abroad for 15 years.

The changes, which will form part of the Elections Bill, will also make it easier for overseas electors to remain registered for longer through an absent voting arrangement.

This means electors will have to renew their registration details every three years instead of annually.

Sue Wilson, Chair of Bremain in Spain, told The Local: “We have been disappointed many times over, as government manifesto promises came to nought, but this time looks and feels very different. 

“We have a government bill, money was set aside in the recent budget, and there seems to be a plan. 

“I know many will be sceptical after previous disappointments, but I believe we are finally on our way.” 

How can British people overseas use ‘votes for life’?

The new “votes for life” will apply to all British citizens living overseas who have been previously registered to vote or previously resident in the UK.

The absent voting arrangement means individuals will be able to reapply for a postal vote or refresh their proxy vote at the same time as renewing their voter registration.

However, overseas electors will only be entitled to register in respect of one UK address, with clear rules to be put in place surrounding this. The Local has asked the UK government for more details on what these rules will be.

British people wishing to register to vote under the new measures will also have to show a “demonstrable connection” to a UK address, according to the government document.

Furthermore, individuals will have to register at the last address where they were registered to vote, or at the last address where they were a resident.

The government states that someone can demonstrate their last address by checking past copies of the electoral register or local data such as tax records, or by documentary evidence or, “failing the above, an attestation from another registered elector.

The government say “if none of the above are possible, the applicant will not be able to register.”

Why is the UK government making these changes?

Unfortunately this comes too late for many Brits abroad to get a say in the thing that has had the biggest impact on their lives – Brexit – but better late than never.

A press release from the UK government states that decisions made by UK Parliament impacts British citizens who live overseas and so they should have a say in UK Parliamentary General Elections.

It specifically mentions decisions made surrounding foreign policy, defence, immigration, pensions and trade deals.

Lord True, Minister of State for the Cabinet Office, said: “In an increasingly global and connected world, most British citizens living overseas retain deep ties to the United Kingdom. 

“Many still have family here, have a history of hard work in the UK behind them, and some have even fought for our country.

“These measures support our vision for a truly Global Britain, opening up our democracy to British citizens living overseas who deserve to have their voices heard in our Parliament, no matter where they choose to live.”

Many other countries already give their overseas nationals the right to vote for life and some, including France, have MPs dedicated to representing nationals who live overseas.

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OPINION: Macron will hope his risky ‘Borne Experiment’ is not a thriller

President Emmanuel Macron's choice for PM is a risky one, writes John Lichfield but Elisabeth Borne will have to learn fast if she is to deliver Macron victory in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

OPINION: Macron will hope his risky 'Borne Experiment' is not a thriller

The new French government has a Hollywood sound to it: “The Borne Experiment”.

President Emmanuel Macon will hope that it is not a thriller. Elisabeth Borne, a decent, highly competent woman has not been chosen for her charisma or her vaulting ambition.

She has been chosen because she has links to the Left, because she will be hard-working and self-effacing and because she is a woman. Macon thought, quite rightly, that it was time that France had another female prime minister.

The first, Edith Cresson, lasted only 10 months in 1991-2 – a victim of many things including the jealousy of her male Socialist colleagues.

Times have moved on since then. Gender is unlikely to be Elisabeth Borne’s biggest problem. Her first great challenge will be to run the campaign for Macron’s centrist alliance in the parliamentary election next month despite never having stood for public office of any kind.

READ ALSO: What does a French Prime Minister actually do?

As head of state, Macron is not supposed to lead the campaign in the parliamentary elections. He has already, in fact, been campaigning in semi-public, pushing the boundaries of convention.

Now that he has finally appointed a prime minister, Borne will be expected to be one of the principal voices and faces of the campaign. She will also be expected to weld, or at least sticky-plaster, together the seven different factions in Ensemble!, the federation of Macron-supporting parties.

Borne was one of Macron’s first choices for PM just after his presidential election victory three weeks ago. She was side-lined while Macron looked at other possibilities, precisely because she was considered to lack the experience, charisma and public-speaking skills to lead the parliamentary campaign.

At the end of last week, it was reliably reported, Macron had settled on another choice: Catherine Vautrin, a former centre-right minister and president of the greater Rheims conurbation in Lorraine. Several Macron barons objected.

They pointed out that Vautrin had been a vocal opponent  of legalising gay marriage in 2012-4. Her appointment as PM, when Macron needed to attract the young and moderate left vote, would be unfortunate, they said.

Macron gave way. He returned to his original choice, the  reliable Elisabeth Borne.

Although atypical (because she is a woman) Borne is in many ways a typical member of the French ruling class. She went to a Grande Ecole (elite seat of third level education). She worked in  the private offices of senior Socialist politicians such as Lionel Jospin, François Hollande and Ségolène Royal.

She was the prefect (senior national government representative) of Poitou-Charente. She was the head of the Paris metro and bus service, the RATP.  

Macron set out an impossible CV for his third prime minister. She must be a woman. She must have knowledge of environmental and social questions. She must have a strong regional base and political experience.

Elisabeth Borne fulfills the first three requirements perfectly. She comes nowhere near points four or five.

In some respects her choice for PM is proof of what many have pointed out to be the great weakness of the Macron years: his failure to build a grass-roots political movement and to encourage the emergence of sub-chieftains below the supreme leader.

It used to be that French prime ministers (not always but often) were the obvious lieutenants within the President’s political family. Now that the political families are dysfuntional and the parties scarcely exist, almost anyone it seems can have their Warhoilian moment in the Hôtel Matignon, France’s Number Ten Downing Street.

Jean Castex was plucked from near obscurity to be Macron’s second prime minister in July 2020 –  and he made a pretty good fist of it. In choosing Elisabeth Borne, Macron has gone for a female Castex.

Her job is to be impressive but not so impressive that she overshadows Macron (as Edouard Philippe, Macron’s first PM had threatened to do).

She has to be ambitious to succeed but not ambitious for herself.

She has to learn how to be a politician while already holding the second most important job in French politics. She is running for parliament in “my” constituency, the 6th circonscription  of  Calvados in Normandy.

In purely electoral terms, Elisabeth Borne is a risky choice. Nonetheless, despite her inexperience and despite the fractious mood of the country, I expect her to “lead” the Macron parliamentary alliance to victory on 12 and 19 June.

For reasons I have explained here before, I believe that Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Left alliance will do reasonably well but has no chance of winning a majority of the 577 seats in the national assembly.

A TV debate – if there is one – between the histrionic Mélenchon and the understated Borne will be a thing to behold.