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WE have got about three million people settled in Britain who are working, paying taxes, raising children, paying rent or buying houses — they are here for the duration — but they can’t vote.
We haven’t seen this many resident adults excluded from voting for 90 years.
In 1928, all over-21 men could vote, but only property-owning women over 30 could put a cross on the ballot.
The Representation of the People Act 1928 gave all women over 21 votes, adding five million to the electoral role: current disenfranchisement is on a similar scale.
The three million settlers are EU migrants who moved to Britain. The government expects and wants them to stay.
The Tories have set up the EU Settlement Scheme to ensure all EU people currently in Britain can remain, permanently if they wish, after any Brexit.
There is much wrong with this Settlement Scheme — real worries whether it will cover enough people.
But the basic principle is right. Home Secretary Priti Patel recently proudly announced two million people applied to the scheme. this could mean another one million face future problems.
We can worry there might be a “Windrush” danger. But all the same, Patel did say: “EU citizens have made a huge contribution to this country and will play a key role in cementing Britain’s status as an outward-looking global leader after Brexit.”
Home Office Minister Brandon Lewis also praised the scheme, saying: “EU citizens are our friends, family and neighbours and we want them to stay.”
If EU people settled in the Britain are our friends, family and neighbours, if we expect them to stay, if they have made a huge contribution, then we should give them the vote, like all the previous waves of migrants who built our nation. Friends don’t let friends be disenfranchised.
Giving the vote to EU citizens who are “settled” was raised as a possible amendment to the Bill launching the next election.
I saw SNP MP Kirsty Blackman argue for this on BBC Newsnight. Tory MP Mark Harper objected strongly.
He said it would be “extraordinary” if we “let people who aren’t British citizens vote in our national elections.”
He said this was “not something that can be accepted.”
But it is not “extraordinary” at all. It is ordinary. The British tradition is letting settled non-citizens vote.
Many migrants who settle in the Britain can vote in general elections, without changing their citizenship.
Harper was a Cabinet Office minister for constitutional affairs, so what is “extraordinary” is that he did not know this.
Irish citizens resident in Britain have been allowed to vote in British general elections since 1949 — that’s 70 years.
We’ve come to see Irish people settling in Britain as a normal part of what Britain is.
Irish citizens helped build our country. They live, work and pay taxes here, so of course they should get to vote. Until the 1980s this wasn’t even a “reciprocal” arrangement — we allowed Irish citizens settled in Britain to vote in Britain after three months’ residence, whereas British citizens could not vote in Eire.
We also allow all Commonwealth citizens who can settle in Britain — that’s people from over 50 nations, including Australia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Jamaica and Fiji — a vote in general elections, as long as they have leave to remain here.
The important thing is whether people are settled and pay taxes, not if they are “citizens.”
We recognise that lots of migrants may stay in here for decades, raising families and working and paying taxes — so they should vote.
But they may want to keep their home nation citizenship and passport because they may one day return — perhaps when they retire.
We accept Britain is a nation that always has had a substantial long-term migrant community, and we do not disenfranchise them.
That was the British way, the norm. In some ways it came out of a paternalistic, colonial tradition: our big waves of migrants came from former colonies of the British empire.
We had post-colonial arrangements that gave them votes. Arguably in Britain votes are given to “subjects,” not “citizens” and all colonial people were “subjects” of the crown.
It may have old-fashioned origins, but it was a better approach than the EU norm.
Since the early 2000s, our big migrations into Britain came from Europe, under EU rules.
The EU approach is not the “free movement of people” it is the “free movement of labour,” where people are economic units, not migrants who should get voting rights.
The implication is these are “guest workers.” The EU practice is that migrants within the EU do not get national voting rights in the countries where they live.
As a kind of consolation prize, they are often given voting rights in local elections, as they are in Britain, but never national elections.
We have adopted the bad EU system of “no votes for migrants.” We now have a chance to change that.
The EU people in Britain are migrants, not “visitors” or “guest workers.”
Like the Irish or Jamaicans or Indians and others before them, they are here for the long term. They have already been here for years and will be here for decades.
EU citizens come from Poland or Spain or Romania or Italy to work in our warehouses and building sites and hairdressers and hospitals.
The people who care for us when we are sick or drive us to work or help us get our groceries or teach our children are excluded from democracy.
Our neighbours and friends appear to live the same life as us, but can’t vote. They pay taxation, but have no representation — which even in liberal political theory, is actually a justification for revolution.
There are about 45.7 million on the national electoral role. So up to 6 per cent of settled adults have no vote.
We have not experienced migrants being disenfranchised on this scale since Britain became a full democracy. Migrants are typically working people, often in the less well-paid jobs.
We have a system deliberately disenfranchising workers: you would really need to look back to the 19th century to find something similar.
We can fix this. It will take more campaigns, more motions to conferences, perhaps an official commission of inquiry. But there has been a serious distortion to our democracy over the past decade that needs to be repaired.
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