The recent tumult faced by the UK government and the impact this is having on real lives and our international standing may be giving many cause to question the legitimacy of our democracy.
The fact that we have had three prime ministers since July and the electorate has had no say in electing two of them may well be at the forefront of people’s concerns. At least one potential legal challenge, by Tortoise Media has been launched in response.
Amidst the chaos it should be noted that 1.5 million migrants who live in the UK have absolutely no right to vote. Not even in local elections. Despite being liable to pay council tax. This is surely the worst of times to be disenfranchised?
A non-partisan campaign group launched just ahead of party conference season has been making its voice heard above the noise. The Migrant Democracy Project wants voting rights in England and Northern Ireland to be the same as in Scotland and Wales. Hardly radical – just fair.
What’s the disparity?
This “levelling up” of voting rights can be achieved by introducing a system of voting rights based on residence rather than citizenship. All residents in Scotland and Wales can vote in local, Senedd and Holyrood elections irrespective of nationality.
In England and Northern Ireland things are more complicated. Throughout the UK British, Irish and Commonwealth Citizens can vote in all elections. In England and Northern Ireland EU citizens who arrived in the UK by 31 December 2020 and have secured legal immigration status can vote in local elections. EU citizens who arrived after then can only vote if they are a citizen of a country that has a bilateral voting rights agreement with the UK. Currently this only applies to Poland, Portugal, Luxembourg and Spain.
The government is not seeking bilateral voting rights agreements with any non-EU countries and it is unclear what steps are being taken to secure such agreements with the other EU states not yet on the list. Furthermore, non-EU and non-Commonwealth migrants have no vote at all. This leaves 1.5 million migrants shut out of the democratic process altogether. Subject to the law with no say in who is elected to make the law.
A tale of two conferences
The Migrant Democracy Project was founded just in time for the Labour Party Conference. There they raised awareness of the issue at rallies and fringe events and by staging a mock ballot on introducing residence-based voting rights. The campaign was well received and a number of supporters were brought on board.
The campaign gained some traction at the Conservative Party Conference, albeit in a more challenging environment. Inevitably, there were many protests and demonstrations outside the conference of a governing party with drastically declining poll ratings, and security was tight.
I spoke with Lara Parizotto co-founder of the project, on the opening Sunday evening of the conference. She had already been subject to heckles of “Tory scum” and concluded that the conditions overall were not favourable for replicating the mock ballot outside the conference. Despite all this, progress was made and awareness of the issue increased.
Following the conferences Lara and co-founder Alexandra Bulat have been busy reaching out internationally to those with shared aims on voting rights. Closer to home, awareness and support is increasing in the Commons and the Lords.
Lara and Alex feel strongly that it is essential to directly involve those who are disenfranchised, and have planned an event for UK Parliament Week where migrants will be able to talk to an MP on a tour of Parliament.
Change is needed now more than ever
UK resident migrants continue to voice their frustration at not being able to vote. This is a cross party issue.
Fabiano Farias a Brazilian living in London, wanted to vote for the Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey, in the 2021 mayoral election. When “a Brazilian friend living in Scotland told me they had just registered to vote for the upcoming elections… I rushed online to register for the London Mayoral elections only to discover I didn’t have the right.”
Politicians should not be making assumptions about which parties may have most to lose or gain by adding 1.5 million voters to the electorate. As Fabiano says: “Often, it is assumed that migrants will not vote Conservative. It’s unwise to assume. Migrants are a diverse community with different realities and experiences.”
Leni McCormick a Norwegian citizen living in South West England, commented to me while I was preparing this article that there should be “no taxation without representation. As someone who’s ineligible to vote, I will never be represented in either local or central government unless I’m able to vote.”
There are examples across the world of residence-based local voting rights in operation from Belgium to South Korea and, most importantly, even within the UK in Scotland and Wales. Very few countries have extended the principle to national elections. But New Zealand, Chile, Uruguay, and Malawi show us that this, too, is possible.
In this context simply extending the same local election voting rights enjoyed by residents of Scotland and Wales to those in England and Northern Ireland does not seem like such a big ask.
That change is needed now more than ever.