Overseas voters’ decisive Brexit-fuelled shift from Conservatives casts doubt on government Votes For Life pledge

Overseas voters abandoned the Conservatives in droves after Brexit but this shift in political allegiance could ultimately deter the government from keeping its promise to grant them votes for life, warns a new study by the University of Sussex.

An on-line survey carried out by University of Sussex academics reveals that the Conservatives’ share of overseas votes in the EU fell by two thirds between the 2015 and 2019 elections. The Labour and Liberal Democrat combined vote share rose from 56% in 2015 to 85% by 2019.

Dr Susan Collard and Prof Paul Webb predict that with such a loss in potential voters, it now seems extremely unlikely that the Conservatives will prioritise a pledge they made in their past three manifestoes to abolish the current rule under which Britons living abroad lose the right to vote after 15 years outside the UK.

If implemented, this could give up to 3.5 million more Britons the right to vote according to the government’s own estimates.

Paul Webb, Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex , said: “Through analysis of the unique survey of Britons living abroad we carried out, we discovered that Brexit has had a significant impact on realigning the support of EU-based expatriates away from the Conservatives and towards Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

“The implications of a hard Brexit were clearly of great concern for many British expatriates living in the EU, who feared they would lose reciprocal rights that EU member-states accorded to their citizens living in other EU countries. The Europhobia of a growing part of the Conservative Party, and the willingness of the leadership to bend their policy to accommodate it, seems likely to have undermined the electoral appeal of the party to Britons living in the EU.”

Dr Susan Collard, Senior Lecturer in French Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex, said: “If the Conservative government had any insight into the damaging impact of Brexit on its expatriate support, it is perhaps no surprise that it eventually chose to kill the Private Member’s Bill that proposed expatriate Votes For Life in the 2017-19 Parliament.

“There would seem to be little or no future partisan advantage for the Conservatives in extending voting rights to all British expatriates, unless they are able to mobilize a new potential electorate beyond the EU as part of the drive to build a new ‘Global Britain’. However, their arguments in favour of extending the overseas franchise have always fore-fronted issues of principle rather than pursuit of electoral gains. That position will now be put to the test.”

The University of Sussex research team surveyed more than 3,200 British expatriates immediately after the 2019 general election via the Britons Voting Abroad Facebook page, the EU-wide citizenship rights group British in Europe, its national sub-groups, and the three main parties abroad.

The survey showed a definite trend from EU-based expatriates away from the Conservatives who suffered a catastrophic drop in a share of the vote from a fifth in 2015 to a sixteenth in 2019.

The survey reveals that 95% of EU-based expatriates who voted in the 2016 referendum favoured Remain over Leave while three-quarters of EU based expatriates claimed Brexit definitely influenced their voting choice in 2019.

Many Remainers defected to Labour or the Liberal Democrats with fewer than one-fifth of Remainers who supported the Conservatives in 2015 voting for the party again in 2019.

This, the researchers note, marks a significant change from the traditional stereotype of British ex-pats, built up over more than 30 years, as being disproportionately affluent Conservative voters. Studies of the 1992 election showed that nearly 80% of overseas registrations were in Conservative-held constituencies and estimated that 60-65% of the overseas vote went to the Conservative Party.

The research also details how all three parties have stepped up their overseas ancillary organisations in recent years alongside the steep rise in the number of British expatriates registering to vote in the UK.

The introduction of online registration from 2014 triggered a threefold increase in the number of registered overseas electors by 2015, and this rose again for the EU referendum in 2016 and the subsequent general election of 2017.

Prof Webb said: “Britons abroad have begun to emerge as a potential force in UK politics, demanding voting and citizenship rights which have been the subject of parliamentary debates. But the relative weakness of parties abroad is a reflection of the institutional context of UK general elections where there are no reserved constituencies at Westminster for expatriates, unlike in France, Italy and Romania, with overseas votes scattered thinly across 650 constituencies meaning their numbers are rarely great enough to swing any contest decisively. The advent of Brexit only seems to render still less promising the prospects of British parties abroad.”

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By: Neil Vowles
Last updated: Tuesday, 4 August 2020

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