“Polls come and polls go,” remarked David Cameron when, a few weeks back, what the pundits called “Brown bounce” suddenly put the Conservatives ten points behind Labour.
More relevantly here, voters come and voters go ... and they can go literally. According to one recent calculation, some 600 UK citizens go abroad not intending to return every day of the year. On the basis of the poll figures just mentioned this means some 220 potential Tory supporters quit the country every twenty-four hours; Labour and the LibDems suffer comparable losses. Potential is the key word here. Whatever their previous political enthusiasms only a minuscule number of British expats register to vote and actually exercise their franchise.
The system is too cumbersome
In a recent article in the Weekly Telegraph William Hague highlighted just how reluctant those of us who live abroad are to use our vote. Of some 2.5 million UK citizens living overseas who qualify for the franchise - an equal number don't do so - fewer than 20,000 are actually registered at this time to participate in general elections. For Hague this was to be deplored, of course, and he offered a familiar list of reasons why they should vote: they might return home one day (as quite a lot do), they may have family living in the UK and simple feelings of patriotism should motivate them to play their part. And some are paying UK taxes.
So why so few voters among expat Brits? To discuss this I called in recently at the House of Commons to talk with Francis Maude, until very recently Chairman of the Conservative Party and also MP for Horsham; Mr Maude takes a close interest in the matter and is concerned at the extent of overseas voter apathy. “I know when I meet people living abroad they always seem interested and informed about British politics. The problem is that the system we have for expat voting is altogether too cumbersome and it puts them off. As the number of UK citizens living abroad is increasing all the time it's surely in the interests of democracy to make things much easier. A Conservative government would aim to make the system as simple and straightforward as possible - other countries have managed this. The exact details will have to be thrashed out with the Electoral Commission but as in many other countries the vote would become a lifetime right and we would hope to ensure that people could register and use their vote with a minimum of bureaucratic fuss. We could look for solutions which would do away with the need for proxies. Does the requirement for applicants to identify a constituency where they voted in the past still make sense, given the continuing history of boundary and name changes? Finally, we could look at making it possible to vote - as other countries do - at diplomatic missions and similar places. I'm not saying these reforms will be wholly easy to achieve but if the will is there I'm sure we can create a much more practical system.”
An election could come at any time
As Mr Maude stressed, change will only happen with a Conservative government. “Labour has always been basically hostile to expat voting. What I want to say is this: people should register to vote under the present system and so help us to get back into government and introduce the reforms I've been talking about. And there's real urgency about this. In all parties it's accepted that an election could come at any time, even as early as October. Anyone who cares about what's going to happen in the country should register as soon as possible and help us to victory. To put it simply, we'd aim to create a Britain people wouldn't be so keen to leave - and would more readily come back to.”
For more information on voting see www.dontleaveyourvoteathome.com. British Conservatives in the South of France and Conservatives Abroad: 06 22 56 38 74. Labour and the LibDems have no local representation.