Tory backbenchers are trying to remove the vote from 1.5 million people. It isn’t a coincidence that those voters have a tendency to vote for Labour. And their votes could make the difference in seven marginal constituencies in this year’s general election.
They are people living in the UK who, for the most part, are citizens of Commonwealth countries and Ireland. This is a category of voter that has had the franchise for decades. They are people who contribute to their communities and the economy. They are our neighbours and friends.
The numbers of people the Conservatives are targeting are startling – 306,000 Indians, 180,000 Pakistani citizens, 73,000 Australians and 52,000 people from Zimbabwe. People from Nigeria, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Canada and Bangladesh living in the UK could also be removed from the franchise. There is also a risk to the 345,000 eligible Irish voters in the UK.
It’s worth remembering many of these voters tend to vote for Labour because of their small ‘c’ conservativism, with a focus on their families, their communities and their faith infused with strong work ethic. Exactly the sort of communities that have been put under pressure by the Thatcherite policies of David Cameron and successive Conservative governments.
So who are the Tory backbenchers at work? In this case it’s Brian Binley MP and Liam Fox MP. They are not politicians who are often saluted for their courage, strength, or indefatigability. After all in a drunken moment of self-reflection Brian admitted that politicians “are all totally corrupt”. Indeed, Liam Fox had to resign due to his unusual financial relationship with Scottish businessman Andrew Werritty. For those who don’t remember, amongst other things, Werritty stayed rent free at Fox’s London home. The rent was being paid by Fox’s MPs’ expenses account. These are clearly people whose motives should be questioned.
The ploy by Tories to take the vote away for 1.5 million people for short term electoral advantage is disgraceful and needs to be stopped. Thankfully it looks like they will not be able make it happen before the general election. But this is something the Tories will try to do any time they are in government in future.
The best response from Labour should not be to defend the status quo.
At the moment anyone from a Commonwealth country or Ireland can move to the UK and can register to vote in a general election almost as soon as they arrive. Yet, in most instances UK citizens are not allowed to vote in those Commonwealth countries. This is fundamentally unfair.
If Commonwealth communities in the UK are serious about maintaining their franchise they need to put pressure on their own governments to extend it to UK citizens where they come from. Labour should support these campaigns.
However, that won’t be enough. In the long term, the way to stop the franchise being taken away from Commonwealth citizens in the UK is to move people closer to British citizenship. This will make the right to vote more meaningful for Commonwealth citizens in the UK and protect it from accusations that Commonwealth voters are getting something for nothing.
Commonwealth citizens should have an automatic right to vote after living in the UK for a number of years, maybe two or three. This could be called ‘associate citizenship’ to demonstrate that they’re part of the politics of the nation and long term members of the community.
The right to vote is one of the most important we have as citizens. Everyone should be angry that the Conservatives are trying to take it away from some to give them an edge in the general election.
Anyone worried about this should do everything they can for a Labour victory in May. It’s the only way to make sure.