At what point does a sentence become a tiresome string of words? I do not know how many times I have already said that we have now reached the end of the road in terms of the abysmal treatment of EU citizens at home in the UK. Or that our treatment cannot get worse anymore. After all, we were called queue-jumpers by the Prime Minister and are being forced to apply to stay in our home.
But each and every time I said or wrote such words, something else happened. Something that was worse.
So today I will not say that it now cannot get worse anymore. I will say that we have reached the worst point so far: the deliberate disenfranchisement of thousands of EU citizens at home in the UK. And also, it appears, that of thousands of British citizens who live in another EU country and further afield.
If you want to understand the scale of the problem, please go to Twitter and search for the hashtag #DeniedMyVote. Tweet after tweet, we can learn of EU citizens eligible and registered to vote in the European elections who were denied their vote.
The main reason for problems for EU citizens were issues to do with the separate declaration form EU citizens have to sign to vote in EU elections in the UK. Many EU citizens did not know about this form in the first place, but there are also many stories of EU citizens who submitted the form but receipt was not recorded. Worst of all, many seem to have have been told that they do not need to do anything else when they should have been told about the form.
British citizens who live in another EU country, but also those elsewhere abroad who wanted to exercise their right to vote in the UK, have reported many problems. On the one hand there are those generally disenfranchised because the have lived outside the UK for more than 15 years. But we also heard many stories about issues with postal voting: British citizens applied for their postal vote to vote in the UK, but their applications were either not processed — there is even evidence of one council noting that they were too busy to process applications — or they were sent, but did not arrive in time.
What we witnessed as a result of these failures was a mass disenfranchisement. But it gets worse: it was a mass disenfranchisement we knew would happen unless emergency measures were put in place. Theresa May did not support such measures when asked about them only two days ago. She made the choice not to ensure that EU citizens at home in the UK who are eligible to vote would be able to vote.
That makes clear that we cannot simply cast what happened as an unfortunate error or a tragic accident. It was a choice, and consequently, deliberate.
Campaign groups and I are exploring legal action and the options available to take this forward, but realistically chances for immediate remedy are very slim. But here is one thing you can do if you have been affected: complain! The3million, a campaign group for EU citizens in the UK, have provided a helpful template you can use. Complaints help establish a record of the scale of what happened, as well as being useful for potential future action.
Yet while this is very important, this story cannot end with outrage that eventually fades away. What we witnessed on Thursday has been unprecedented, disenfranchising further significant numbers of people from the two groups already largely disenfranchised in the whole Brexit process and more broadly. Their voting rights may be further restricted in future and there is a real possibility that some of them will end up with no vote at all anywhere. In a western democracy. In 2019. Let that sink in.
That is why now is the time for bold and progressive new policies. The franchise in the UK needs to be looked at urgently. It cannot remain as it stands but needs to be extended. The familiar ‘no taxation without representation’ mantra is a useful starting point.
With that in mind, what we need moving forward is a franchise that is based on the clear foundation that those in the UK permanently are given the right to vote. A suitable agreement might be to say those resident for five years or longer — so effectively those with indefinitely leave to remain or the equivalent — would be granted the right to vote. Settled status would fall in the latter bracket, so EU citizens would be granted these voting rights. In light of historical ties and agreements, provisions for Irish and Commonwealth citizens should remain unaffected by this.
The UK stands at a crossroads of a kind the country has never seen before. Brexit is what created it. Whatever happens with Brexit itself, the significant democratic deficiencies we have seen revealed — in both the UK’s electoral system and the franchise — need to be overcome. Ensuring EU citizens at home and settled in the UK, and British citizens abroad, are fully enfranchised is one first step to take. Let’s take it now. Let’s make the expansion of the franchise the legacy of #DeniedMyVote. It is the only right thing to do now.
With thanks to Axel Antoni from the3million for informing my thoughts on the points about the expansion of the franchise.