The next step for suffrage: give all immigrants the right to vote
The centenary celebration of women’s suffrage in Britain offers a chance to reflect on the limited scope of democracy today.
It’s striking how just a few generations ago more than half the adult population was subject to laws they had no say in making. Women, and men without property, were permanent outsiders within the state, denied basic respect and standing. Only in 1928 did parliament extend the vote to all women over the age of 21, affording them suffrage on equal terms with men.
Today, not everybody living in Britain has a right to vote. While no one is legally barred from voting based on gender, race, religion or class, large numbers still lack participation rights due to the circumstances of their birth.
For immigrants who live in the UK without citizenship rights, unless they qualify as a citizen of a Commonwealth country or Ireland, they lack the right to vote in general elections and referendums. This includes EU citizens who had no voice in the UK’s referendum on EU membership – a vote which had huge ramifications for their futures.
Non-citizen residents may have migrated to the UK for work, study or family reasons or they may be refugees and forced migrants fleeing persecution, poverty and war. National politics is very often about these people, but it is certainly not by them and hence very rarely for them either.
But this is unjust – and there are good reasons why non-citizen residents who have based their lives in the UK should be accorded full voting rights.
Subjection to the law
In the same way as resident British nationals, non-citizen residents are expected to obey the country’s laws or face being arrested, fined and imprisoned. Without voting rights, they lack a very important means to assert their interests – and politicians have few incentives to address their concerns. Whatever the drawbacks of the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the vote remains an important source of power.
This lack of political voice is especially troubling in the case of the estimated half a million people in the UK deemed “illegal immigrants” who lack formal residency status. Often working in the shadow economy, they are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation at the hands of unscrupulous landlords and greedy bosses. In reality, they are doubly disenfranchised since in exercising their political rights to freedom of speech, protest and association they risk drawing the unwelcome attention of the authorities.
These “non-status” residents should be given a pathway to legal residence and the right to vote. Some people might object that this would only reward their “bad behaviour” in entering the country illegally. Yet, even if irregular migrants had broken immigration law, political participation is a basic right and not something to be withheld from unpopular groups of people.
It is for this reason that the UK was ruled in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights in 2005 for its blanket ban on votes for prisoners. The government is only now beginning to address this exclusion.
Contribution and duty
Another argument for giving migrant residents the vote is based on the contribution they make. This was famously expressed by the American colonists in the phrase “No taxation without representation”. It was also deployed by the British Suffragettes, who pointed to the vital contribution that women’s labour had made to fighting World War I.
Non-citizen residents are currently integrated into the UK labour market and economy, but not its political life. In that sense, their situation is like that of a live-in servant: someone whose labour you benefit from, and whose activities you direct, but who has no effective say. As well as working and paying taxes, non-citizen residents also contribute to the social and cultural life of the country.
I don’t think that political rights should ultimately depend on a group’s particular contribution – we don’t think the elderly and the disabled are any less entitled to vote for example. But there is no doubt that historically this has been a powerful rhetorical tool in suffrage struggles.
Some political theorists even argue that when a section of the population does not vote it’s a form of free-riding and hence unfair to those citizens who do vote. Voting is often viewed not only as a right but as a duty, like jury service. Casting your ballot in an informed way takes time and effort. It means keeping up with current affairs, following the various proposals of the political parties and holding representatives to account.
As it stands, this burden is shared unevenly. By giving non-citizen residents the vote, we would be asking them to take up a civic duty and participate as equals in public decision-making. UK citizens may then be less disposed to view them as outsiders, and enfranchising them could be a powerful signal against racism and xenophobia.
It works elsewhere
Extending the franchise could be done by offering easier routes to citizenship after a period of residence. Another idea is to decouple voting rights from nationality. Those who have been in the UK for some time – say one or two years – could be afforded the right to vote even if they were not yet eligible for citizenship or had no intention of becoming naturalised.
A large number of states (65 by some estimates) already allow non-citizen residents to vote at local elections, such as for local councillors or mayors. In the UK, EU citizens can vote in local elections, while Irish and Commonwealth citizens can vote in both local and national elections. Yet this is the product of the UK’s history of colonialism and supranational agreements, rather than any consistent democratic principle.
The first country to grant voting rights to women – New Zealand – is one of only a handful of countries that allow permanent residents to vote in national elections as well. Chile, too, allows foreign residents to vote after five years.
Instead of pandering to intolerance and restricting rights, the UK government should extend the franchise to all immigrant residents. So long as this group continues to be marginalised, political energy will be misdirected and the interests of all will suffer.