Today, the Let us Vote campaign launches, backed by the3million, British in Europe and Another Europe is Possible. It estimates that there are ten million people who are part of British society but are barred from having a say on what happens at Westminster.
This cannot be right. Our democracy is fundamentally flawed if people who are a part of British society – whether they are fruit pickers, nurses, doctors, teachers or builders – are permanently excluded from the vote, even if they have lived in the UK for decades and have made this their permanent home.
Many friends (including people I speak to who voted leave) are shocked when they find out, for example, that in the EU referendum of 2016 so many were disenfranchised. For a start, not all British citizens were allowed to vote, as those who had been living outside of the country for more than 15 years were barred. This includes over a million people who have built their lives in the EU27 thanks to freedom of movement, which they are now set to lose because of the result.
In contrast, any Commonwealth citizen living in the UK, even temporarily, was allowed to vote. That’s a good thing - but it can’t be right for the British abroad to be excluded at the same time. And then there are the EU27 citizens who are in the UK under freedom of movement, who despite being on the electoral register for local and European elections were deliberately excluded from the franchise, even though have been most affected by the vote. Even more confusingly, as Malta and Cyprus are part of the Commonwealth, some EU27 citizens were allowed to vote, but not the others. And so were the Irish.
When it comes to national elections to elect Westminster MPs, the franchise is equally confusing. This needs to be put right, and the simplest way to do so is to allow everybody who lives in the country to have the right to vote. Yes, that means giving migrants a vote. And we cannot allow this to be set against the rights of British citizens abroad, whose voting rights should be restored in full.
For EU27 nationals (other than the Irish, the Maltese and Cypriots) there are two routes to make this happen. The first is to link the right to vote in national elections to the settled status scheme (this could also be done quickly for other immigrants, for example linking the right to vote to the Indefinite Leave to Remain status). The second route is a rapid, straightforward and cost-effective path to British citizenship. But this is problematic as some EU countries do not allow for dual citizenship.
In any case, naturalisation is currently extremely expensive, ruled by constantly changing, Kafka-esque Home Office procedures. Many foreign citizens simply do not qualify and never will, because of largely arbitrary and deliberately cruel rules. This must change if we want to live in a society where people are integrated properly rather than permanently excluded.
Women and carers in particular have been heavily discriminated against for the past few years due to income requirements. One of the reasons I got involved with the3million is because I tried to finally become British after many years of being part of British society, running two businesses, employing people, and being active in my local community and my kids’ school. Only to realise - to my horror and sadness - that it would be extremely hard to achieve this, mainly because I had taken some time off from work to look after small children. Taking career breaks to look after my kids is something I am proud of having done and which I never dreamt would lead to me being permanently excluded from becoming a British citizen. And the fact that my husband and children are British, shockingly, counts for absolutely nothing when it comes to my application, because of rules introduced in 2012.
Giving the vote to migrants is less controversial than it sounds, and it should not be a party-political issue. It should also not be linked to your position on Brexit. Nearly 70 per cent of respondents in the 2013 British Social Attitudes survey supported giving EU migrants the right to vote in British general elections after five years residence or less — including around 60% of respondents who saw the impact of migration as negative. Only a small minority support the status quo, whereby even EU migrants who have lived in the UK for decades are excluded from general elections.
People move around, they build lives in different countries, integrate and contribute to society in many different ways, and the rules on who gets to vote and take part in democracy need to keep up with the times.