Britons who have lived abroad for more than 15 years lose the right to vote in UK elections. This would have changed had a Private Member’s Bill with government support passed last month – but a Conservative MP talked it out. Susan Collard (University of Sussex) says the incident reveals the shortcomings of parliamentary democracy.
MPs’ attempts to take over the parliamentary agenda are an illustration of how the government lost control of its management of Brexit. But 22 March saw another spectacular example of how Theresa May has lost control of her own party as well.
That was the date set for the Report Stage of the Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19, a Private Member’s Bill (PMB) sponsored by the Conservative MP for Montgomeryshire, Glyn Davies, and backed by the government as a Handout Bill. The bill aimed to introduce ‘Votes For Life’ by abolishing the existing ‘15 year rule’ which means that UK expatriates lose their vote 15 years after moving abroad. With the government’s support, it was successfully ushered through the second reading last February and the committee stage last autumn despite determined opposition from Labour, which put forward a range of objections and counter-proposals.
Britons living abroad were therefore expecting that it would proceed through the report stage to the House of Lords. Those who were disenfranchised in the 2016 EU referendum and hoped to win the right to vote in time for a possible ‘People’s Vote’ or another Brexit-based snap election felt a particular sense of urgency to get the Bill passed.
However, it fell foul of the arcane procedures in place for consideration of PMBs, which allow an opponent of the bill to kill it by ‘talking it out’, otherwise known as filibustering. This is frequently the fate of PMBs, only 5% of which on average make it on to the statute book. A government-backed bill normally stands a better chance of success. However, these are not normal times and events on 22 March did not turn out as anticipated.
Instead of the Bill being talked out by Labour, which had been planning to focus the discussion on its cross-party amendment to allow votes at age 16, supported by 85 MPs, it was filibustered by the Conservative MP for Shipley, Philip Davies, a member of the European Research Group (ERG) and ardent Brexiteer. In what was clearly an act of collaboration with Labour against the government, Davies more or less copied and pasted a whole raft of new clauses and amendments tabled by the opposition during the Committee Stage (none of which had been successful) that he referred to as ‘Matheson’s greatest hits’ (Christian Matheson was leading the proceedings for Labour), adding a few more of his own to boot. Several amendments were tabled jointly by Matheson and Davies.
With his well-established talent for talking endlessly without much substance, only ‘giving way’ to pre-arranged interventions from other MPs in order to prolong a semblance of discussion, Davies ended his speech just 10 minutes before the Speaker called time at 2.30pm. This left only a few minutes for Labour’s Matheson and the sponsors of the Bill, Glyn Davies and the constitution minister Chloe Smith, to make a few concluding statements. Labour might have been glad of the support in killing the Bill, but its planned debate on votes at 16 was also hijacked in the process.
Other rebellious Tories also turned out for the session and Labour mustered an impressive showing. But genuine supporters of the Bill were thin on the ground: Dominic Grieve and Geoffrey Clifton-Brown for the Conservatives, Ben Bradshaw for Labour, Mike Gapes (ex-Labour, now Independent Group) and Layla Moran for the Lib Dems, were all notably absent. There was no question of anyone putting a closure motion for the government as at the Second Reading: their troops were simply not there to answer the call. The progress of the bill came to an end, not with a bang but a whimper.
This deliberate humiliation of the government did not only reflect the fallout from Brexit. It was also a rebuke for trying to push through a significant change to the franchise, indeed a party manifesto pledge, through a PMB rather than a government bill.
What was it that persuaded Philip Davies to jump in at the last minute with his myriad of amendments? Was it that already-infamous speech by the Prime Minister against Parliament? Did he fear the possibility of an extended expat vote swinging the result against Brexit in the event of a second referendum? Was he put up to it by Labour to make sure the bill would not get through? Whatever his motives, several conclusions can be drawn from this extraordinary display of strategic disruption.
First, there is serious need for reform of the procedures for Private Member’s Bills: the Government has failed to act on a number of petitions and recent reports from the Parliamentary Procedure Committee making recommendations for change. A system that allows such wasting of parliamentary time by filibustering, funded by taxpayers, and watched with incredulity and incomprehension from the public gallery, surely has no place in a country which considers itself to be a model of democracy.
Second, the intervention by Philip Davies laid bare the internal disarray within the ranks of the Conservatives, torn apart by deep divisions over Brexit. That a Conservative MP should filibuster an important Bill supported by its own government reveals the extent to which the government has lost control of its own party.
Third, the question of overseas voting rights continues to be dominated, as in previous parliamentary debates, by party politics. As anticipated a year ago, the pursuit of partisan interests prevented the emergence of a properly informed discussion of the core issues at stake in this bill. It is those who will become, or remain, disenfranchised by the 15 year rule that have paid the highest price.
The Overseas Electors Bill is now dead, but the question of UK overseas voting rights will not go away and determined expatriate campaigners will continue their battle for what they see as electoral justice. The Conservatives should recognise that trying to deliver Votes For Life through a ‘single issue bill’ presented as non-political was an ill-judged strategy that proved to be counter-productive, particularly in a hung Parliament.
The politics of overseas voting in the UK are such that the removal of the time limit on the overseas franchise is more likely to be achieved if it is counter-balanced by the reduction of the voting age to 16, which is now a manifesto pledge of all opposition parties. Both extensions of the franchise could be incorporated into a single but wide-ranging bill to increase democratic engagement, which could also include a much needed overhaul of electoral administration, putting an end to the untidy state of current legislation, as called for by the Association of Electoral Administrators.
But – and it is a big but – this would demand a significant degree of political compromise. Unless the trauma of Brexit triggers a new approach to consensus-building in Westminster, the necessary cooperation remains unlikely: Britons abroad will once again drop out of sight and out of mind.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. Readers who want to know more about the issue of voting rights for Britons abroad can go to Britons Voting Abroad or its Facebook page.
Dr Sue Collard is a Senior Lecturer in French Politics and Contemporary European Studies in the Department of Politics, University of Sussex.