The 2017 General Election witnessed the highest voter turnout in 20 years. Much of this was attributed to 18-24 year-olds, who after registering in Facebook-inspired force, also went to the polling stations on 8 June and ended two decades of disproportionately low turnout among younger voters. While this feat was remarkable, and helped Labour crush the Tories’ pre-election majority, spare a thought for the vast swathes of UK residents who were unable to vote at all.
EU nationals living in the UK form a large and diverse body, numbering around 3 million and having arrived from a wide variety of European countries at different times and for different reasons. Many have lived here for decades. They are also proportionally younger than the UK average and more likely to be in employment. However, despite their significant contributions and deep roots in UK society, none of them are able to vote in general elections.
The fact that they have so much at stake in the election result and the subsequent Brexit negotiations only compounds their sense of helplessness. Take Polish-born Michal, a charity sector worker and former councillor who lives in Watford with his two kids. In almost every way he feels deeply embedded in British society. This is particularly so during the local elections, which he is able to take part in and which he relishes doing so. But come the general election, he is made to feel an outsider.
Must it be this way? While nobody is advocating that immigrants should be handed voting rights upon arrival, surely voting rights should be extended to those like Michal who choose to settle here. At the moment the only way of doing so is through acquiring British citizenship, which is costly, heavily bureaucratic and unattainable for many. There is certainly room to debate the necessary criteria and time frame. Perhaps three years of residence. Perhaps five. However, the current blanket-ban is not the answer.
The UK public seem to agree. A recent poll showed that nearly half of all British citizens support an extension of the voting rights of EU nationals in Britain to include a right to vote in general elections after Brexit. Both Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians also back extending this right. Understandably, there is a growing recognition that if we are letting EU residents stay, we should also let them vote.
The UK government however appear unwilling to even guarantee their existing voting rights. The UK’s policy paper published recently, which detailed the offer of “settled status” for EU nationals after Brexit, made no mention of safeguarding their right to vote in local elections.
At a time when EU nationals feel increasingly uneasy about their future in the UK, affirming and expanding their voting rights would go a long way to easing these fears and ensuring that they feel like full and valued members of society once and for all. And at a time when complaints about immigrants not integrating into society are commonplace, such a move would be the best possible way of providing the conditions for full integration and finally rendering these claims obsolete.
Josh Cooper is a Campaign Volunteer with the Labour Campaign for Human Rights