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Low turnout expected for British nationals in Spain for UK general elections 2015

Spain is home to around 300,000 registered British nationals, 20,000 of whom reside in Catalonia and retain the right to vote in the forthcoming general elections in the UK on the 7th of May, according to date from the Spanish Statistics Institute given in 2014. The election this year is especially important as polls suggest that no combination of parties will win a stable majority which could be the end of the road for a strong government. Moreover, the election is more important than usual for British nationals living in Spain as in the rest of Europe as Cameron has promised that a Conservative victory will renegotiate Britain’s relations with the EU and put the result to an in/out referendum on membership by the end of 2017. A British exit from Europe could potentially lead to British nationals abroad facing several difficulties in regards to freedom of movement across Europe. On the other hand, May 7th could also mark the point of no return for the troubled union between England and Scotland, due to a surge in support for the secessionist Scottish National Party (SNP).

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07 May 2015 01:10 AM

by

Shobha Prabhu-Naik Garaialde

Barcelona (ACN) – Spain is home to around 300,000 registered British nationals, 20,000 of whom reside in Catalonia and retain the right to vote in the forthcoming general elections in the UK on the 7th of May, according to date from the Spanish Statistics Institute (INE) given in 2014. The election this year is especially important as polls suggest that no combination of parties will win a stable majority which could be the end of the road for a strong government. Moreover, the election is more important than usual for British nationals living in Spain as in the rest of Europe as Cameron has promised that a Conservative victory will renegotiate Britain’s relations with the EU and put the result to an in/out referendum on membership by the end of 2017. A British exit from Europe (Brexit) could potentially lead to British nationals abroad facing several difficulties in regards to freedom of movement across Europe. On the other hand, May 7th could also mark the point of no return for the troubled union between England and Scotland, due to a surge in support for the secessionist Scottish National Party (SNP).


'The key to the election'

300,000 registered British nationals live in Spain (around 770,000 according to a 2014 estimate made by the UK High Commission), of whom roughly 20,000 reside in Catalonia and retain the right to vote in the forthcoming general elections in the UK, according to data from the Spanish Statistics Institute (INE) from 2014. In addition to the Consulate General in Barcelona, the UK has 8 other representations in Spain including the embassy in Madrid and consulates in Alicante, Bilbao, Ibiza, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Malaga, Palma de Mallorca, and Santa Cruz de Tenerife. However, the turnout for British nationals abroad is predicted to be significantly lower the number of eligible to cast their vote for the 7th May.

According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, there were some 45 million parliamentary electors in 2014—a fall of 1.8% since 2013, partly explained by new voting registration rules which mean that people must be signed up individually rather than as part of a household. The Electoral Commission reported that 7.5 million eligible voters were not registered. At the last general election in 2010, even among those who are registered, many seem likely to stay away from the polls with 16 million registered voters not exercising the right.

The turnout for British nationals voting from abroad this year is predicted to be even lower. Estimates from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office published on 5th February showed that there may be as many as 5.5 million UK nationals living overseas, but that there are fewer than 16,000 (only 15,849 according to a report made by the Electoral Commission in March) currently on the electoral registers.

In February 2015, Alex Robertson, Director of Communications at the Electoral Commission stated, “A lot of people aren’t aware that it’s possible to register as an overseas voter for the general election. We need to challenge the misconception that once you’ve moved overseas you can’t take part.” At the end of last year, David Cameron sent a personal message to Conservative supporters worldwide as part of an internet campaign by the party urging expats to register to vote. He told them that in an election with so much at stake they “could be the difference” between a Conservative government and a Labour one. An expat vote “could hold the key to the election” he said. Indeed, 42 MPs were elected with majorities of less than 1,000 votes in the 2010 general elections meaning that potentially more expat votes could make a significant difference in marginal constituencies such as Bolton West or Broxtowe. Cameron's statement followed a manifesto pledge in September 2014 that the Conservatives will restore voting rights to all of the estimated 5.5 million Britons overseas if they win the election on 7th of May.

However, pro-democracy campaigners say British nationals abroad are frustrated with politicians at home and so may disregard his plea to vote. A significant number of British expats are pensioners, and many are unhappy with recent British policies of pension freeze and the removal of the winter fuel allowance from those living in warmer climates.

Moreover, Cameron has promised that, if he wins the British election on 7th of May, he will renegotiate Britain’s European Union membership and hold an in/out referendum before the end of 2017. The 2 million British citizens living in another EU member state could be significantly affected if the UK left the EU. In a worst case scenario, they could suddenly have to apply for visas, residence permits and drivers' licences, and might face major new restrictions on their social security and pension rights.

Roll up, roll up

If you are a British citizen living abroad, you can apply to be an overseas voter. You must have been registered to vote in the UK in the last 15 years and be eligible to vote in UK Parliamentary general elections and European Parliamentary elections.

Although overseas voting can often be a tedious process, this year the Electoral Commission launched an ambitious campaign specifically targeting British nationals abroad to encourage more British expats to join the UK voting register ahead of the general election on 7th of May. This has been the first UK General Election where people could register to vote online. From June 2014 till the 20th of April (which was the deadline to apply) 113,742 UK nationals applied to register to vote from overseas. However, it is unclear how many of those applications resulted in names being added to the register – the Electoral Commission does not yet have those figures, according to a spokesman. Still, the Commission hopes that the number of applicants for the new online process demonstrates an increase in UK nationals living overseas prepared to vote.

There are two other ways of voting from abroad: by post or by proxy. A postal vote requires that the voter has enough time to receive and return the ballot papers by polling day. To check when postal votes are sent out it is necessary to contact the local authority of the address to which the voter is registered. The deadline to apply to vote by post in Great Britain for the elections on 7th May was 5pm on 21st April.

UK nationals abroad can also apply to vote by proxy which allows someone else to vote on the person's behalf. Both the voter and the person appointed to vote on his or her behalf must be registered under the new system. The deadline to apply to vote by proxy in Great Britain for the elections on 7th May was 5pm on Tuesday 28th April.

There is also the opportunity of voting by emergency proxy. This is only an option if the voter becomes aware that they are unable to attend the polling station in person for reasons relating to occupation, service or employment, after 5pm on the sixth working day before an election. Emergency proxy is still open for application until 5pm on the Thursday 7th of May.

The 7 main party leaders, David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood, Natalie Bennett and Nigel Farage have emphasised the importance of all votes including those from British nationals abroad. On the 17th of April, they all provided statements for The Guardian newspaper warning of dwindling engagement in politics and the importance of voting. Farage of UKIP was the most forthright: “If you don't vote, you can't complain” he wrote.

SNP and the balance of power

On current projections, the SNP (Scottish National Party) will almost sweep Scotland, predicted to win 50 or more seats out of 59 in Scotland and out of 650 in the House of Commons. The victory will be mainly at the expense of the Labour Party and would make the SNP the third largest party at Westminster. If neither the Tories nor Labour win an overall majority, as the polls suggest they will not, the SNP could hold the balance of power in parliament at Westminster.

Nicola Sturgeon has already said that she would prefer to support a Labour-led government to a Conservative-led one, which has led to the Conservatives playing up the risk of a Labour-SNP affiliation around the rest of the United Kingdom to get the 56% of voters who oppose such a deal to vote for them. It remains to be seen on whether such a strategy will work for Cameron.

Since Scotland’s independence referendum last September (in which voters rejected separation by an 11-point margin), the SNP’s popularity has surged. Before the referendum campaign, the party was getting less than 30% of the vote in Scotland in polling for the Westminster Parliament. Now, in a survey published on April 27th by TNS, 54% of Scots plan to vote for the party, compared to just 20% for Labour—which received 42% of the vote in the last election in 2010.

Although there are vast differences between Scottish nationalists and Catalan nationalists, their main similarity is the rejection of complete control from the central government. In Catalonia, this is due not only to identity, cultural and fiscal motives but also increasingly to the recentralising and conservative orientation of the Spanish state. However, whilst Catalonia has been formally denied a legal independence referendum by the Spanish Government and independence remains the main political focus for the pro-independence parties, the SNP is more focused on entering into negotiations over increased self-government and budgeting powers that London promised it as a reward for voting to stay in the Union.

If the SNP gains as many votes as has been predicted, Catalan politicians in favour of independence will look even more towards the party which in the wake of its “no” vote will be able to put independence back on the political agenda in the UK, so soon after the independence referendum in 2014 and with relative ease.

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  • David Cameron, incumbent Prime Minister and Tory leader (by Downing Street / ACN)

  • David Cameron, incumbent Prime Minister and Tory leader (by Downing Street / ACN)