Votes for Life - Lib Dems Abroad Background

House of Lords Meeting
Lord Jeremy Purvis and Lady Lindsay Northover with former Lib Dems Overseas Chair George Cunningham, 2021
Proceedings on Parliament TV

Votes For Life

The Lib Dem manifestos of 2017 and 2019 committed the party to “enable all UK citizens living abroad to vote for MPs in separate overseas constituencies, and to participate in UK referendums”.

This pledge was fleshed out in more detail in the 2019 policy paper produced by Lib Dems In Europe and Lib Dems Overseas specifically for Brits living abroad.

History of voting from overseas

Before 1985, UK citizens living abroad were not able to vote. The law was then changed allowing them to do so, but only in their first 5 years away from home. This was extended to 20 years in 1989 and arbitrarily reduced to 15 years in 2002.

Changing the Election Law and Lib Dem involvement

In April 2021, Ms Chloe Smith, former UK Minister of State for the Constitution and Devolution, consulted Lib Dems Abroad alongside the two other main national UK parties about the proposed changes to the Elections Law to give the vote back to all Brits living abroad. Lib Dems were firmly in favour of the overseas changes proposed in the Election Law - and even wanted to go further.

On 16 September 2021, Lib Dems Overseas Chair George Cunningham gave evidence at the House of Commons on the Elections Bill supporting the abolition of the 15 year rule and highlighting the importance of unfreezing pensions for British citizens abroad. You can watch the video here:

Lib Dems Abroad then made a written submission with suggestions for improving the bill which was followed up by two amendments to the bill submitted by Lib Dem Lords Rennard and Wallace: to speed up the process by introducing electronic ballot transmission and to conduct a feasibility study on establishing overseas constituencies.

The government continued to insist that ballots be sent out and returned by post. The idea of electronic transmission of ballots to the voter either by downloading or emailing would substantially increase the chances of overseas voters getting their ballots back in time for the count but this was rejected despite several approaches by the Lib Dems to the government. This is a serious flaw in the bill, in effect disenfranchising many, especially those who live the furthest away, unless they can find proxies in the UK.

Secondary legislation and making the change a reality

The Election Act passed in March 2022. In June 2023, Lib Dems Abroad along with the other two main political parties attended a ministerial roundtable on the secondary legislation needed to enact the 2022 Elections Act with Baroness Scott of Bybrook and the representatives from the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Elections Directorate.

The secondary legislation was enacted at the end of 2023.

On 16th January 2024, all British citizens abroad who have ever lived in the UK became eligible to vote. The Electoral Commission overseas registration campaign is now underway, with the three main UK political parties also involved.

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