Thursday, 30 July 2009

Who would be the first British Costa Brava MP?

The French government published on Wednesday the final version of the new parliamentary boundaries for the election of the next Assemblée Nationale in 2012.

This redistricting is the first implemented since 1986 and the French Constitutional Council had been pushing the issue for a long time. The Council advocated in particular a rebalancing of the size of constituencies: the biggest mainland constituency (6th of the Var) was 6 times bigger than the smallest (2nd of Lozère).

The French media is for the moment concentrating on the evolutions in mainland France where 27 départements lose 1 or more MPs and 15 départements gain more MPs. In 25 other departments, constituency boundaries will move even if the number of MPs stays the same. Predictably, the debate consists mostly of accusations of gerrymandering from the opposition and protestations of fairness from the government.

However, this debate (while probably worthy of another article some day) misses the biggest novelty of the new system, and probably the most favorable to the ruling UMP: the creation of 11 constituencies representing French citizens established abroad. These new MPs will represent the 1.27 million French citizens registered at French consulates around the world. Currently, they can only vote directly to elect the president, representatives in a consultative body (Assemblée des Français de l’étranger) and participate in national referendums. Their parliamentary representation was limited to 12 senators, elected indirectly by the Assemblée des Français de l’étranger.

The constituencies will elect a single MP and represent geographic zones with approximately 115,000 registered expatriates. For example, 1 MP will represent North America, 6 will represent European constituencies (including one composed of the UK, Ireland, Scandinavia and Baltic States, probable heavily dominated by the votes in London) and 1 will represent an enormous constituency including Russia, Iran, Asia (except the Middle-East) and Oceania. These MPs, like all the others, will be elected in a two-round voting system, where every candidate getting 12.5% of registered voters in the first round can take part in the second.

The obvious reference point to simulate the result in these constituencies is the second round of the 2007 presidential election. The turnout for French expats was 42% (way lower than the amazing overall turnout of 84%) and the result was 53.99% for Sarkozy, 46.01% for Royal, an 8% majority for Sarkozy, as compared to his 6% overall margin (53.06/46.94).
Using the boundaries of the constituencies created yesterday, Sarkozy won 9 and Royal won 2. The creation of MPs for expats is thus apparently beneficial for the right and a possible way to ease the way for a third UMP term, unheard of for any French majority party since 1981.
Italians abroad are also represented both in the National Assembly (12 seats) and the Senate (6 seats). However, these parliamentarians are elected through PR, limiting their impact on the national majority.

These facts might interest some of you as new aspects of continental politics but it is also a question for British politicians: if 1.3 million French expats are given direct parliamentary representation (even if it’s only 2% of MP seats), what about the estimated 5.5 million British abroad?

At present, every British citizen who has been registered to vote in the UK within the last 15 years is eligible to vote in UK Parliamentary (general) elections and European Parliamentary elections in the UK. British living overseas thus vote in their constituency of origin, either directly or through postal/proxy voting. This has certainly an impact on turnout, especially as their issues as expatriates are probably not dealt with during a GE campaign.
Thus, here are my questions to pbers: do you think the UK should create parliamentary constituencies representing British abroad? If so, how many and who would you think would benefit from such a move? And what do British expats posting on think?

Chris (from Bethesda)

The author is a French expat living in the USA


Alastair said...

I'd never really thought about this idea, but as a general rule I don't like people voting in elections that don't affect them. Power without responsibility is the harlot's prerogative.

Expats presumably vote more on values than on pocketbook issues, and usually on the basis of information that's years out of date. If you lived in Spain, would you pick up on the changes that David Cameron had wrought in the Conservative party? Would you even have heard of UKIP?

I would prefer to disenfranchise anyone not resident in the UK for tax purposes.


Id said...

As an ex-pat myself, I truly don't believe that I should be entitled to vote in the UK and nor should it be appropriate unless there is a clear intent to return and then continuing to cast your vote in your last registered constituency is probably the fairest option.

Unknown said...

I think there should be a Gibraltar constituency (currently able to vote for an MEP in the South West). We know it would vote Conservative (and by a landslide) but it means that Gibraltar would then have an MP who was able to say "NO, we do not want to have any connections with Spain!"

Richard Nabavi said...

Very interesting - thanks Chris for drawing it to our attention.

As to whether it is a good idea or not: I suppose you could argue that everyone should be able to vote in some election. At present, ex-pats can't usually vote in either their country of origin, or their country of residence (except in some special cases such as, I believe, local and Euro elections, but not national elections, within the EU).

Also there is a strong counter-argument to antifrank's point at 1; if you have been driven out of your home country because of bad government or a collapsing economy, shouldn't you have a say in rectifying the situation?

However, I'm sure that in practice these things are more likely to be decided on narrow party-advantage grounds than principle.

Ted said...

Taking up Harry Hayfield's point I think there should be an MPs for the remaining overseas territories. One for the Gibraltar and Atlantic Islands (St Helena, Ascension, Tristan da Cunha and Falklands) which have 40,000 or so inhabitants and perhaps one for the Caribbean Islands (Anguilla, British Virgin Islands, Cayman & Montserrat and perhaps Turks & Caicos) with 90,000 or so.

Bermuda has been self governing for most of last 400 years so perhaps is more Isle of Man/Channel Islands but perhaps as its foreign affairs are still UK Government it deserves one as well.

elagabalus said...

I don't think that people who aren't liable for UK taxes should be allowed to vote.

In the EU, I think that expats should be able to vote in national elections in the country in which they currently reside, with the same residential qualifications as citizens of that country.

Nick Palmer MP said...

Generally I think "no taxation without representation" should have the obvious corolllary. Incidentally, I thought the time limit was 10 years, but Chris should know. It would probably push the parties into addressing an unfair feature of the current pension system - for countries with whom we don't have reciprocal arrangements, the UK pension is not adjusted for inflation, so it gradually just evaporates.

It's currently easy to forget to register if you live abroad - you have to apply for a special form and you have to do it every year afresh, whereas in Britain the local council nudges you each time.

JohnKellett said...

Nick Palmer MP said...
Generally I think "no taxation without representation" should have the obvious corolllary.

I quite agree - we should disenfranchise Labour's legions of workshy spongers...

Unknown said...

Can you imagine the furore caused in Ireland if their was a Westminster constituency for The Pale? Cyprus-south might be a runner though...!

gdfernan said...

NPMP: RE: "no taxation without representation"

If as you said the above is fair, do you believe the corollary "no representation without taxation" is also fair. If so, why and if not why not?

Blue Alex said...

Ted is right that Bermuda, the British West Indies, Gibraltar and the British South Atlantic territories should have Parliamentary represenation.

So too should the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

But perhaps this should be in the new elected Senate that the Conservatives are committed to introducing, rather than the House of Commons? This could also be the root for British Overseas Voters....

That way they couldn't overturn a manifesto commitment of the government of the day (if the Salisbury Convention is upheld), but they could articulate the views of their constituents and help stop any "back door" deals on issues like Gibralatar....

Blue Alex said...

Apologies, Gibraltar.

Chris (from Bethesda) said...

Thanks for all the comments.

I agree with most of you that it seems odd to grant parliamentary representation to those who choose to live (and pay taxes) elsewhere.

However, the current system is already giving them the vote, even possibly influencing the result in an ultra-marginal constituency. How is it fairer to give them a possible decisive vote in a constituency than letting them elect a few MPs of their own?

If the taxation issue was the real point of the current system, they should not be able to vote at all in GEs.

stevenoates said...

Well, perhaps you ought to think about it then, Alastair. Do you know that overseas voting is taken for granted in most of Europe, US, Japan, Iraq? Have you thoguht that the right to vote is a civil and political human right? You admittedly "presume" things you don't know. And have you heard of how easily news circulates across national boundaries lately? Duh. How many UK residents know what Cameron and the Conservatives are doing? Get real, man.

stevenoates said...

Id, If you don't want to vote, then please do not. But many British overseas residents do not feel your alienation. On the ocntrary, many feel seriously wronged by the present system. You are right, though, that the last registered constituency option is one valid possibility.

stevenoates said...

Nick Palmer MP, You ought to know better too. The rule is 15 years. No idea what your "obvious corollary" is though. You are nevertheless right about the registration, and it would be helpful for government to make this easier. Thank you for addressing that in Parliament.

Jeremy Millard said...

Bravo for France and Italy, is my first reaction. As an inveterate voter (my Grandmother was a suffragette who suffered much for the right to do so), but who has lived in Denmark for more than 15 years, I am and feel completely disenfranchised. The problem is, as mentioned by others, that I cannot vote anywhere for a national government. I understand the taxation argument, but many people in the UK as elsewhere are nationals and don’t pay tax. If I could vote in Denmark, that would be one solution, but maybe not the best. The French and Italian approach of giving seats to overseas electors is probably preferable, so that’s what ideally I would urge on the UK. For example, in the context of a reformed House of Lords.

The reason for this is not just voting, or the lack of it, but goes much wider. Disenfranchisement is just the tip of the iceberg. Linked to this are pensions, healthcare and other rights, which are often reduced or denied to overseas Britons even after a lifetime of contributions in the UK. Just as troubling is the almost complete failure to exploit the immense potential which the British diaspora represents. All this reflects a little englander (sorry Scots, Welsh and Irish friends – but you understand the analogy!) mindset which somehow sees Britons who live abroad as out of sight and out of mind, or worse as deserters. This is quite astounding given Britain’s long history of global engagement

On one level, many of us applaud globalisation and the UK’s role in this. We support the EU’s efforts to create a single market and strongly encourage global labour mobility as good for the UK economy. But this economic perspective is too narrow. It ignores the democratic, political and cultural dimensions of global movements of workers, seniors and others, and the benefits this delivers to the UK.

The erstwhile iron link between democracy and territory has been largely broken, but the UK seems oblivious to this fact. Any new constitutional and democratic settlement must recognise and exploit the British diaspora. Many countries already do so, like France and Italy, and most other democratic countries place no time limit on how long their citizens abroad can vote in national elections, whilst the few that do allow more than 15 years. Since 1996, the Council of Europe has urged member states to allow expatriates to vote abroad without limit. There are judgements in the European Court of Human Rights which clearly indicate that the right to vote without time restrictions is wholly consistent with relevant international instruments.

So, what should happen? The new constitutional settlement being discussed in the UK must leverage the economic and cultural weight of the British diaspora by harnessing their knowledge, expertise and contacts from around the world. For example by supporting networks of skilled global expatriates and organisations by location and sector, and as cultural ambassadors. It should allow British citizens abroad who do not otherwise vote for national parliaments to do so in Britain regardless of how long they have resided abroad. It should give Britons abroad a greater voice in the UK political system, if not in a reformed House of Lords then perhaps by establishing a high-level consultative body for overseas Britons. My suffragette grandmother would be proud, and the UK would benefit immeasurably.

Jeremy (from Aarhus)

The author is a member of Labour International.