Harry Shindler MBE, Heather Harper MBE and Tristan Feunteun with Sir Roger Gale MP and Glyn Davies MP discussing the Overseas Electors Bill - House of Commons - 17 January 2018
The ‘Votes for Life’ Campaign
In 2000, Labour shrank the franchise by lowering the time Britons working, studying, and living abroad have before they cease to be eligible to vote in General Elections. Conservatives Abroad has long strived to help abolish this unfair and arbitrary decision, the so-called '15-year rule' so as to create the optionality of voting for all British citizens regardless of where they live.
The Conservatives Abroad Team* has worked with a succession of MP's and Ministers for Constitutional and Political Reform (and related mandates), from MP's Sir Roger Gale and Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown to Ministers Mark Harper MP, John Penrose MP, Chris Skidmore MP, Chloe Smith MP and No 10 Special Advisors Sheridan Westlake OBE and Stephen (now Lord) Parkinson (of Whitley Bay), to achieve the abolition of this rule, in order to achieve Votes for Life. Conservatives Abroad has also worked with Peers such as Lord Lexden, Lord Norton of Louth and Lord Taylor of Holbeach and many others, to extend the franchise to those among the over 5.6 million Britons living abroad to whom the 15-year rule applies.
Indeed, the Conservatives Abroad campaign to introduce Votes for Life has become a Conservative Party Manifesto pledge three times, first under Prime Minister David Cameron, then Theresa May, and now Boris Johnson.
Earlier efforts to abolish the 15-year rule (or to pave the way for this through boosting registration of voters and through efficiencies in electoral administration) came close but, for a variety of reasons, did not get on the statute book (often relating to a lack of parliamentary time/resource). This is notwithstanding the valiant efforts by Conservatives Abroad and its Chairman Heather Harper MBE and its supporters within the Commons and Lords, as well cross-party support within the Commons which led to in January 2013 Lord Lexden moving an eventually unsuccessful amendment to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill to remove the '15 year rule' and in 2015 Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown tabling a Ten Minute Rule Bill.
Boosting the registration of overseas voters has also been a key achievement of Conservatives Abroad Team*, and evidence of the appetite of global Britons to exercise their right to vote. Prior to 2015, the number of overseas Britons registered to vote never exceeded 15,000. The then Party Chairman Lord Feldman of Elstree set a goal for Conservatives Abroad Chairman Heather Harper MBE to increase the number of overseas voters to 100,000. The Conservatives Abroad team were instrumental in devising a “Think of Three” campaign for disseminating encouragement to register among global Britons, a campaign that was launched for Conservatives Abroad by the then Prime Minister David Cameron. As a result of the Conservatives Abroad-originated campaign, overseas Britons registered to vote hit over 285,000 in 2017.
Most notable among the cross-party support on this issue has been that provided by Harry Shindler MBE who, at 99 years old is Labour’s oldest former agent and also is - we understand - Labour’s only “honorary member”. Harry, a decorated veteran of World War II, is also an inveterate campaigner for the abolition of the 15-year rule. Harry has pursued cases before our High Court and the European Court of Human Rights (supported by Sir Roger Gale MP and Heather Harper MBE) and has lobbied the European Commission on the subject - liaising and cooperating throughout all these efforts with Conservatives Abroad.
Recent Conservative-led efforts at effecting legislative reform of the franchise, therefore, have included: the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill 2013, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP’s Overseas Voters (15 Year Rule) Bill 2015, Overseas Voters Bill 2015 and Glyn Davies MP’s Overseas Electors Bill 2017.
Votes for Life has long been a Conservative Party objective because it is the right thing to do for our global Britons. This same principled position has attracted cross-party support for Votes for Life. This point of principle persists irrespective of whatever the present-day political leanings of any particular expat community may favour or state to be their views, bearing in mind the wide variety of ages and backgrounds of our expats, which mirrors the diversity of Britain itself. In our post-Brexit world, Votes for Life also holds the very real prospect of empowering and mobilising Britons working, studying and living abroad to become global ambassadors for a global Britain. Conservatives Abroad will continue to work with the Party, and supporters in the Commons and Lords, in order to achieve this worthwhile objective until it is on the statute book, so they can celebrate this democratic right.
* Including Tristan Feunteun, Christopher Chantrey OBE, Paul Barnes, Peter Michelmore OBE and Colin Blackwell plus many many more.