Labour Must Stop Ignoring Its International Base

In the build-up to the general election, Labour’s membership hit its highest level in 15 years. Despite the defeat, this went on to increase even further: an extra  20,000 new members joined in the days which followed election night, an influx which continued as the leadership election got under way. Faced with five more years of a Conservative government, a huge number of people were galvanised to join Labour. What’s more, this wasn’t only the case across the UK.

Labour International is the party’s constituency which represents both permanent and temporary overseas members. It aims to maximise Labour’s vote overseas. In the past couple of months the international branch of the party has also gained new members: five more years of Tory rule struck a chord, so much so that even those not living under it wanted to join up to help the fight back.

The expat vote, introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1985 and since extended, is a controversial topic. Individuals who have been out of the country for 15 years are stripped of their right to vote, against which many overseas Brits, who have maintained strong personal and professional links with the UK,  have campaigned. Some see their vote as a way to help care for relatives back home and, for others with plans to repatriate, it gives them the chance to have their say in the society to which they will return. This is perhaps a minority perspective: there are around 5 million Brits living abroad, but, at the 2015 election, over 113,000 applied to register to vote. A huge increase from just 32,000 in 2010. The challenge for the LI is to increase Labour’s overseas members and votes but this will take support from the next leader. Although equivalent body, Conservatives Abroad, does not disclose its membership numbers, it has the active support of David Cameron. The cross-party parliamentary group on overseas voting, chaired by Philip Norton, has no Labour representation.

One area of LI which has seen a big boost in numbers is Berlin, a group which has been going for just under a year. Organised by Jane Golding, Berlin’s membership was at 10 when it started in late 2014; this number has since followed the general trend growing to 31. Golding explains that Berlin’s members feel strongly about their connection to the UK: whether or not an individual still has the right to vote, Labour International gives all supporters the chance to be actively involved with politics back home. From small acorns...

But the leadership candidates largely ignored the Labour International constituencyBut the leadership candidates largely ignored the LI constituency. In June, its co-chairs wrote to each leadership campaign team. Only Corbyn and Burnham’s teams responded with letters regarding their views on issues closely affecting expat Britons, especially, the proposed EU referendum and the Votes for Life Campaign. The acknowledgement of LI from these two campaigns may have only marginally helped each candidate win voters; however, the silence from Cooper and Kendall didn't do them any favours. During the exhaustive campaign each candidate travelled the length and breadth of the UK to reach their public, but the failure to engage with the international section of their party came across as a careless disregard for foreign-based voters. A missed opportunity, says Golding: the party could benefit from considering expat members as ambassadors who could provide Labour with “a different perspective, perhaps a more objective perspective, plus intelligence on how things work or how the UK is viewed in other countries."

Another LI member who has noted the candidates’ reluctance to engage with voters abroad is Dick Smith, secretary of the North West France branch and a party member since 1969, who says that none of supporters in his area have “been directly touched by any of the candidates’ campaigns.” Both Golding and Smith confirm that the candidates have been rather vague regarding their position on Britain’s role in the EU, an issue with obvious resonance for those living in Europe.

Golding points out that much of the UK-based hype surrounding Corbyn has travelled over to Berlin’s party members, some of whom have been attracted to his grassroots politics. Yet his refusal to give a clear-cut answer on a possible Brexit leaves many expats with a feeling of unease. Now that he has won, Labour members – both at home and abroad – will no doubt call for him to set out a coherent policy. A secure future in the EU will give hope to many LI members, and could even work as a call to arms for those currently reluctant to join up.

Labour International is an active and driven section of an internationalist party; it may be small but it has a large potential of voters waiting to be tapped into. Despite  criticism from the EU Commission,  Labour’s manifesto was silent on overseas voting rights. This void is in stark contrast to the Conservatives who  promised to give the right to vote to the one million Britons who currently fall foul of the 15 year rule. Perhaps out of self-interest: there is a feeling that many of these expats are natural Tory voters. So it would be ill-advised for Labour to ignore the expat vote. They are citizens like any other. Living abroad may give them a perspective better fitting with Labour’s philosophy.

113,000 votes. More than the largest constituency in the UK, the Isle of Wight. General elections have been lost on less.

Laura is freelance writer who lives in Berlin.

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