Political rights

Unequal political rights: the case of immigrant suffrage in the UK


The distribution of political rights in the UK undermines the assumption of equality that underpins democratic practice, writes Sean Renard. He advocates for the extension of the right to vote to all legal immigrants living in the UK – whose lives are affected as much by government decisions as those who, by virtue of their citizenship, have a say in them. elections.

The vote to leave the EU was fundamentally undemocratic. Theresa May’s clear determination to move forward with Brexit therefore compounds an act of injustice that reveals a fundamental flaw at the heart of Britain’s electoral system. If this sounds like a provocative opening salvo for a sweeping cosmopolitan controversy, you might be surprised at the current distribution of voting rights in the UK.

Most people assume that the right to vote is directly linked to citizenship. But citizenship status does not (and should not) determine who has the right to vote. Citizens of the Republic of Ireland and of Commonwealth countries who live in the UK are eligible to vote in general and local elections. They were also allowed to vote in the recent European referendum. In contrast, EU citizens living in the UK are allowed to vote in local but not national elections and were also excluded from the referendum. Immigrants from other countries outside the Commonwealth or the EU do not have the right to vote. A particular consequence of this arrangement is that some EU citizens could in fact vote in the recent referendum: those of Ireland as well as those of Malta and Cyprus.


In a recent published paper I contend that this selective allocation of political rights to some resident aliens (i.e. immigrants) and not to others is an artefact of history rather than a product of adherence to legal principles or clear philosophical. And it is fundamentally undemocratic for two reasons.

First, granting the right to vote only to certain immigrants violates the fundamental assumption of equality between adult members of society that underpins democratic practice. How to justify granting the right to vote to people from Canada and Mozambique but not America or Angola? Are Americans and Angolans somehow inferior? If not, they should be treated equally when it comes to expressing themselves politically. Indeed, it is precisely this argument that has been used to advance the rights of women and minorities in Western democracies in the 20e century.

One might conclude that the appropriate course of action is to level the playing field by preventing all immigrants to vote so that some are not favored over others. But it would further erode UK democracy by increasing the number of disenfranchised adults in society. This brings us to the second reason why the status quo is fundamentally incompatible with true democratic practice.

Surprisingly perhaps, the “demos” in most democracies has never been clearly defined. Who exactly are the “peoples” who should be ruling themselves in the UK? As Robert Dahl remarked, not all classic works of democratic theory have addressed this question, which has come to be known as the “problem of limits”. Scholarly efforts solve the problem of borders in a manner consistent with the fundamental principles of inclusion and equality that underpin democratic theory revolve around the “principle of relevant interests”. Simply put, people who are directly affected by the decisions of a government should have the right to participate in that government directly (eg by running for office) or indirectly (eg by voting).

A radical interpretation of this principle would lead to the conclusion that people all over the world who are affected by UK trade policy, monetary policy or military activities should be able to vote in UK elections – and indeed many have pleaded this case. However, a more pragmatic approach that reflects geopolitical realities would only include those who live within the formally defined political territory of a given nation-state.

If the latter criterion is accepted and the principle of affected interests is applied, it becomes clear that all legal immigrants should have full voting rights. Immigrants have as many direct and material interests in UK government decisions as do UK citizens. Immigrants work for UK businesses, rent or own property in UK, send their children to UK schools and pay taxes – millions of immigrants in UK pay taxes but have no say tell about how their contributions are spent. In contrast, British expatriates and non-doms who escape UK tax are allowed to vote. (In the case of expats, this is true for up to 15 years from the date they moved abroad.) Is this fair and equitable?

There is simply no democratic principle that justifies the exclusion of competent adults from the vote. Resident aliens are de facto members of the UK economy and society and should therefore be considered de facto members of the UK. demos. Linking the right to vote to citizenship is not democratic, especially in an era of increased population mobility. Political rights must follow people as they cross borders or “human rights” make little sense.

This is not a radical proposal, but rather a proposal that would bring the practice of British democracy closer to the principles that underpin the worldwide popularity of a political system that owes much of its existence (again young) to the liberal thinkers of these small islands. It would also change the incentives of politicians who have seemed overly willing in recent years to use disenfranchised immigrants as a supposed scapegoat for a myriad of social ills – a line that is now widely echoed by the public, even when they experienced few negatives. the impact of migration themselves.

British democracy is often presented as an example and a source of inspiration for activists and liberal movements around the world. To maintain this sacred status in the age of mobility, it must address the growing democratic deficit resulting from the selective and philosophically indefensible deprivation of more than 3 million adult residents.


Note: the above is based on a recently published article in The political quarterly.

About the Author

medium-290167Sean Renard is Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography and Global Development at the University of Bristol.

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