Indians and the right to vote in British elections

Last Updated 14 December 2019, 12:07 IST

For several decades now, commonwealth citizens have had the right to vote in all British elections including city council elections, general elections and European parliamentary elections. This right is reserved for those legally in the country with a visa lasting over 6 months and a national insurance number. Indians working in the UK, studying and those living here with permanent resident status. The ability of Indians and other commonwealth citizens to vote is not openly advertised and hence a significant number of immigrants from these countries are not aware of the right.

The Representation of People Act 1918 states that only British subjects can register as an elector which includes people born in commonwealth nations. The definition of a British subject hasn’t changed since which allows Commonwealth citizens to vote in the UK.

Many British citizens have been calling for the government to stop giving commonwealth citizens the right to vote in UK elections as there a large number of commonwealth citizens in the UK at just under a million and the chances of commonwealth citizens adversely affecting a close election if a significant number vote is high. Only the Republic of Ireland and some West Indian nations give British citizens the reciprocal right to vote, while India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other nations do not. Migration Watch UK, a non-political think tank says that this phenomenon is an anachronism and it devalues the concept of citizenship. The think tank recommends that the right to vote of non-citizens should be removed unless their countries offer reciprocal voting rights.

Debjani, an Indian student at King’s College London says, “It makes sense that Indians get to vote because students live here for about 3 years if not more and they are strongly affected by British politics. International students having a say in politics makes us feel included.”

On the historical bonds between the UK and commonwealth countries, Najwa Nor Ikhsan, a Malaysian student in the UK says, “Despite not holding a British passport, the bonds between commonwealth countries and the UK is deep. If you are currently living in the UK as a student or as a resident the result of this election will affect you. If one can vote, then I feel one should do it as votes matter,”

Charles Danreuther, a lecturer of British and European politics at the University of Leeds says that “UK electoral law is complicated and in desperate need of reform." He says citing a report by the public affairs and constitutional

affairs committee of the house of lords. He says that the report further talks about how electoral law is voluminous, complex and fragmented which causes it to be archaic and confusing.

The professor further says, "Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK are entitled to vote in UK general elections while the European Union (EU) citizens can only vote in European parliamentary and local elections. Despite the wide contribution of EU citizens to the UK economy, even over decades, the ability to vote is determined by historical colonial ties with the Commonwealth over modern citizenship." He adds that people who pay taxes must be able to vote and whether they are tax-paying or not should be a deciding factor.

Considering a possible future situation, he says "The UK is an ageing society that depends heavily on migrant labour but is less keen on sharing welfare benefits with them. So while the right to vote may be recognised for Commonwealth citizens in their voting, what happens if those votes become more vocal and make demands for equivalent rights to welfare?”

(Published 14 December 2019, 08:35 IST)

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