With the general election upon us, the majority of UK residents are enjoying their constitutional right to have a say in the political future of Great Britain and making their mind up who to vote for on polling day. British expats are also entitled to cast a vote up to 15 years after they leave the UK, although many of the millions of Britons living abroad are unaware of this right and unregistered to vote. Most simply assume that once they are no longer a UK resident they lose their voting rights, but this is not the case. In the last year, the UK government has worked hard to raise awareness of this important right and make it easier for Brits abroad to register to have their say in this and all future elections.
Why should expats have a say?
So why are UK expat voting rights so important? Some UK residents and, indeed, many expats themselves may question why non-resident Britons should want to vote, yet when you consider many of key issues in this months general election, there is a still a great deal that still affects Brits abroad. As well as the obvious emotional and family ties to their home country, many proposed changes by all the major political parties could have a direct impact on the lives of Britons overseas.
As one of central issues being debated in the lead up to the general election, it is arguably the area that could have the biggest impact on expat lives. The majority of expats retain a UK bank account and savings or other assets and should, therefore, consider carefully how each party’s proposed budget plans could affect them.
Economic policy will also have a huge impact on the Pound’s standing against other currencies. For any expats still drawing an income from the UK or with assets in sterling, a small rise or fall against the currency of their country of residence could have a significant impact on their relative wealth. Many living in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have felt the pinch in recent years due to currency fluctuations and, while the UK government cannot directly control currency markets, economic policy can have a significant effect.
With over a million British expats claiming their state pension, or planning to in the near future, this is another election issue of huge importance to Brits abroad. Any change to pension policy could affect this large group as much anyone living in the UK.
Under current legislation, around half of those collecting a UK pension abroad do not get the interest rate-linked increases enjoyed by resident pensioners. There is currently a campaign to abolish this ‘freezing’ of expat pensions making this a particularly important election for Britons overseas. There are also plans to scrap winter fuel allowance for British pensioners living abroad, which should inspire any expat to make sure their vote counts.
Many expats still retain assets or a property in the UK, making them subject to UK taxation rules and regulations. Taxation has been another hot topic of this year’s General Election with parties all offering differing ways of recouping debts and balancing the books.
As any changes could have a serious impact, particularly on any expats drawing an income from within the UK, for example from renting a property or investments, should make sure they have their say on May 7th.
Immigration and the EU
Another important and particularly divisive issue, immigration is the single issue that will impact Brits overseas most immediately. Various proposed changes to the immigration system could dramatically affect those living and working abroad, particularly those who regularly return to the UK or plan on returning permanently. With some smaller parties calling for a complete withdrawal from the EU, it is only right that expat Britons cast their vote.
Less obviously relevant to expat life, the politics of healthcare here in the UK can still affect Britons living abroad. For the million or so British expats living within the EU, the issue is particularly relevant due to the European Health Card system which entitles you to free or subsidised treatment abroad. For many, however, their greater concern is the impact any changes to the NHS could have to their close friends and family still living in the UK.
Like healthcare, education is an issue that may not affect expats directly, but many still feel strongly about due to the importance of education to their home country and their friends and family who still live there.
While they may not be living in the UK, it is almost inevitable that any Brit overseas will have siblings, nieces, nephews or friends attending school or university in the UK, a significant minority may even have children of their own studying back in Britain. For this reason, it is vital that they retain the right vote in the UK general election.
The environment is one of the most obviously global issues being fought this election as decisions on carbon emissions and environmental improvement could have a worldwide impact.
How we produce energy is one of the most hotly contested subjects with parties debating the various merits of wind, solar and nuclear power as well the controversial issue of ‘fracking’ for natural gas. For ecologically minded expats, the election is an opportunity to influence the environmental policy of one of the most influential countries in the world.
Why Don’t Expats Vote?
With some recent changes to pensions and tax leaving British expats financially worse off, many feel disillusioned with the political system and unwilling to participate. However, without registering and casting a vote, they cannot officially and democratically voice their displeasure.
Many expats simply feel disconnected from British politics yet, as we have seen, this does not mean they cannot be affected by political change in the UK. There is also a significant number who are simply unaware that they are able to vote, an issue that the UK government and various campaign groups are seeking to amend.
The Electoral Commission launched a campaign to raise awareness and encourage expats to register to vote last year which has had some success in signing voters up. This was followed in December by a personal plea from Prime Minister David Cameron who sent an email to all expats on the Conservative Party mailing list.
It’s Never Been Easier to Vote
As well as the large-scale media campaign, the government has tried to encourage expats to register to vote by making the process faster and easier than ever. With the launch of the online registration system in 2014, voters abroad can sign up quickly and simply to vote by proxy, by post or even in person. This immediately led to over 17,000 additional Britons abroad registering to vote and has more than doubled the number of expats registered to vote in this year’s general election.
For anyone planning a move overseas, it is reassuring to know that current UK expat voting rights mean they will have a say in future elections long after they have moved abroad. With plans to extend the length of time expats can vote after they have left the UK beyond the current 15 years, Brits abroad will influence the political landscape for years to come. As this general election looks set to be one of the closest in decades, the millions of Britons living overseas could make a real difference in the final outcome.