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The UK Tackles the Hellish Landscape of Electoral Reform

In the labyrinth of British politics, electoral reform is akin to a fabled beast — seldom spotted and often relegated to the periphery of the urgent and the immediate. Yet, the topic has been inching its way up the political agenda, a slow-burning fuse in a landscape punctuated by the pitfalls and pratfalls of democratic governance.

This ascent into the political consciousness can be attributed, in part, to the glaring deficiencies and structural infirmities of electoral systems worldwide — systems that have, on occasion, sown the seeds of malpractice and disenfranchisement.

In the venerable democracies, criticism abounds, and the United Kingdom finds itself squarely in the crosshairs of this scrutiny. Activists clamoring for reform argue that the current British constituency model fails to represent or even consider its expatriate citizens adequately.

The impending abolition of the “15-year rule” — which comes into effect on the first of the year — has been hailed by these campaigners as a belated but welcome rectification. Yet, they assert, it is merely a preliminary stride towards a fully democratic United Kingdom.

This legislative shift will enfranchise an estimated three million Britons residing abroad, extending the democratic right to influence the corridors of Westminster, regardless of their geographic detachment.

However, the UK Electoral Reform Society (ERS) has raised the alarm over potential pitfalls. They forewarn the perils of allowing external financial influence to permeate British politics, exploiting long-term expatriates as conduits for such interference.

Although the spirit of the law is commendable, there is a palpable fear that it could inadvertently dilute the integrity of political funding regulations.

The statute also permits these long-standing expatriates to contribute monetarily to political parties, a liberty that the ERS views with trepidation. They caution that this could usher in an era where foreign interests can subtly shape British political discourse.

With these caveats in mind, campaign groups are steadfast in their quest for the next milestone: the establishment of overseas constituencies within the British parliamentary framework.

Looking abroad for inspiration, they point to France, where the concept of external constituencies has been integrated into the electoral fabric with notable success.

The forthcoming general election, anticipated to take place in 2024, will mark the first time approximately 3.5 million UK nationals living abroad can exercise their right to vote. Nevertheless, they must navigate the incongruence of registering in constituencies they may not have frequented in decades.

Several nations — including France, Italy, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Portugal, and Romania — have pioneered the concept of overseas constituencies, a testament to their global citizenry.

In the UK, advocacy groups such as Unlock Democracy and New Europeans UK are rallying behind this cause, garnering support from a coalition of organizations with vested interests in the rights of British expatriates.

The contention is straightforward: British citizens living abroad deserve representation by members of Parliament who are attuned to and specialize in the distinctive challenges of the expatriate experience.

France provides a compelling case study, with Alexandre Holroyd and Éléonore Caroit representing French nationals across sprawling global constituencies — a tangible link between the state and its diaspora.

Holroyd, a parliamentarian of dual French and British heritage, champions the notion of overseas constituencies as an essential mechanism for maintaining a connection with national institutions and ensuring that the political discourse remains relevant to those who have ventured far from home.

Holroyd says the UK could benefit from giving a “proper voice” to British citizens living abroad. Holroyd, who holds British citizenship, told me, “It [an overseas constituency] maintains a bond between national institutions and citizens living abroad more effectively than any other mechanism that we’ve found. It creates a bond that serves as a window for overseas citizens into the domestic political debate – which can otherwise begin to seem distant for those living abroad for an extended period.”

Such constituencies also bring “added value” to the debate in the French Parliament, he asserts, adding, “MPs representing citizens abroad will have experience of other countries’ political debates, both directly and through the outlook of their constituents that they can bring to the table in discussion of global issues such as climate and migration policy. It goes back to the question of what is citizenship. If something happens to you abroad, the state will try to help you – it won’t make a decision based on how long you have been living abroad.”

“Although it is fair to say that citizens living abroad for a long time may become less interested in day-to-day or ‘bread and butter’ issues of domestic politics, they are no less likely to be interested in certain key debates in the French Parliament,” Holroyd added.

These constituencies not only enrich the French Parliament with diverse perspectives but also uphold the essence of citizenship — an immutable bond with the nation-state, irrespective of one’s domicile.

The French approach underscores a philosophical inquiry: What constitutes political representation? Holroyd posits that the right to participate in the governance of one’s homeland should not be extinguished by the mere act of relocation.

In Italy, a similar paradigm exists, with overseas constituencies spanning continents, ensuring that the Italian diaspora is integrated into the political narrative.

The UK Electoral Reform Society’s Thea Ridley-Castle emphasizes that specialized constituencies for overseas voters address several challenges, ensuring that these citizens are championed by representatives who are conversant with their unique circumstances.

Paul Fisher, President of European Britons, contends that with the imminent universal suffrage for expatriates, the time is ripe — if not overdue — to codify their representation in Parliament.

“Now that universal and enduring voting rights for UK passport-holders abroad is about to become a reality, it is time to start thinking, indeed long overdue, about how this will work. Without a general codified set of rules and guidance for MPs, we need to state clearly the needs and wishes of the overseas electorate,” Fisher told me.

Campaigners advocate for constituencies that resonate with the regional affinities and concerns of Britons abroad, rather than a nebulous integration into the existing 650 constituencies.

As the United Kingdom, with its storied parliamentary history, confronts the realities of a globalized citizenry, it may indeed find wisdom in the French model — a paradigm that venerates the sanctity of citizenship beyond borders.

In a whisper, one might concede that the venerable British Parliament, the progenitor of so many democratic institutions, could stand to learn from its continental counterpart in the art of extending its protective embrace to those who call foreign shores home.