Brexit dominates the national conversation and news bulletins. One key element of the Brexit negotiations that needs more clarification is citizens’ rights – including electoral rights – for EU nationals.
EU citizens currently residing in Britain are not a done and dusted deal. Their voting rights have not even been discussed in phase 1 of the Brexit negotiations. The “settled status” that Theresa May has promised is not automatic (despite promises made during the referendum campaign by Vote Leave) and there is no guarantee EU nationals in UK will get to keep the right they currently have to vote in local elections.
Furthermore, with only one year to go until the Brexit date, the Department for Exiting the European Union cannot comment on what will happen with the right to vote for those who arrive here during the transition period and beyond.
While some political scientists and campaigners are talking about securing the political rights of EU nationals and perhaps, in the longer term, about extending the franchise, I strongly believe that at the next fast approaching democratic test – the 3rd May local elections – we first need to defend existing ones and make sure people know about them and use them.
In the year when we celebrate the centenary since some women got the vote, we could still be talking about taxation without representation. We could still witness the potential disenfranchisement of a group of people who could be deprived of one of the pillars of their integration – the ability to have a say in how the community and country they live in is run. And EU nationals are not the only ones at risk of being voiceless.
Research conducted by the Electoral Commission into the state of the electoral roll has repeatedly identified under-represented individuals and communities. Since 2014, HOPE not hate has been engaging them all, in both voter registration drives and turn out initiatives, run in partnership with the likes of ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s and youth engagement campaign Bite the Ballot.
As a social justice campaigner and democratic engagement officer with Britain’s leading antiracism grassroots campaign, I have seen first-hand what happens when people feel they have no avenue to express their views. Alienation sets in and individuals and communities can become susceptible to extremism or disillusioned in the political system.
As a feminist, a migrant, an interfaith organiser and a member of a trade union, I have also seen the power of intersectional community organising and how that empowers people to march to the ballot box. For the past three years I have had the privilege to coordinate HOPE not hate’s efforts to promote democratic engagement for those most in need of a voice.
We’ve been working with people of all faiths and none to ensure their networks are involved in the democratic process, in our Souls to the Polls campaign. We’ve been working with ethnic minorities and migrant communities to ensure they are aware of their rights and can be active citizens and residents. And we’ve been working to empower students in colleges and universities across the country as well as on the door step in workplaces and on working class estates.
But with a country divided, with people angry or apathetic about party politics and others feeling vulnerable about their status and the future, I worry about the fast-approaching 3 May local elections. Due to take place across London, as well as in Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle, these elections should see British citizens, Commonwealth and EU nationals going to the ballot box. But few know the elections are taking place and many under-represented and marginalised groups are under-registered – as in many years before – and thus unlikely to vote.
The last local elections, in May 2014, saw the lowest turnout in recent history: an average of 39% across London, compared with 62% in 2010. This year, with electoral fatigue looming, the prospect of the Greater London Assembly not heavily promoting the elections, as well as the government’s decision to move its National Democracy Week to July, we are determined to bring together old and new national and local partners to plug the democratic gap and ensure that democracy works for everyone.
All those who care as much as we do are welcome to join us and run democratic awareness events during our 10 to 17 April Democracy Week (the week before the local elections voter registration deadline).
As an EU national and a proud British permanent resident, I plan to vote and get heard. As a social justice campaigner passionate about democratic engagement and civic participation, I hope as many organisations as possible can join us to empower individuals, bring communities together and safeguard our liberal democracy, not just for the 3 May local elections, but in preparation for all those historic, democratic tests ahead.
To join our Democracy Team visit www.hopenothate.org.uk/LDN18