Yesterday saw me write a little guide of sorts regarding the upcoming devolved nations’ elections on the 5th May, covering who can vote, how to vote and providing some context in relation to each regional election. I briefly mentioned that the next few months will be both busy and important, for not only do Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales go to the ballot box to vote in their legislative members and consequently governments, there is also the small matter of the UK electorate heading to the polls to cast their decision on a huge subject: whether or not the UK should continue to remain a member of the EU. As I published the post, I realised that this was a matter requiring its own guide post. So cue me sitting in my university’s library this morning.
Let’s look at the context behind the campaign, before I discuss the technicalities involved, such as who are the main campaign groups, and who can vote in the referendum.
Last Friday (15th April) saw the official launch of the campaign, with both Team Remain and Team Leave now gearing up for what will be quite the fight. It seems surreal to consider that the oft-promised referendum will finally take place on the 23rd June. Cast your minds back to last year, and the Westminster General election campaign. The Conservatives won to establish a majority government, but one of their party pledges within their manifesto was to commit to holding an in-out vote on the UK’s membership of the EU by no later than 2017.
How long ago that pledge seems now, and I cannot help but wonder whether the party regrets this, given the very evident division in both Cabinet and Parliamentary party being played out so very publicly. History repeating itself, perhaps? From Thatcher to Major, the Conservative Party never fails to go to war with itself on the issue of Europe. 2016 is no exception, as Prime Minister David Cameron is finding out. There have already been high-profile interventions on the future of the Prime Minister in light of a vote in favour of leaving the EU (Mr Cameron is campaigning to remain within the EU.) Most noticeably, one Ken Clarke took to airing his view last weekend, the first during the official campaign season. He remarked:
“The prime minister wouldn’t last 30 seconds if he lost the referendum and we’d be plunged into a Conservative leadership crisis which is never a very edifying sight.”
Again, cast your minds back to last year’s election – David Cameron stunned many when he offhandedly declared he would not seek a third term as Prime Minister. The result as been that he may have weakened his hand in the campaign, in that should he lose the referendum, there will be calls for his resignation.
Now, the referendum will be framed around the following question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” Essentially, the UK electorate is being asked if the UK should continue its membership of an organisation we joined in 1972 when it was called the European Economic Community.
I am going to pause briefly at this point to raise an issue of contention. Much of the media coverage of the EU referendum debate and campaign has talked about ‘Britain’s membership’ with the EU, and I feel I need to point out this is incorrect. Britain alone is not going to the polls, the UK is. The United Kingdom comprises of Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland. To use ‘Great Britain’, which only comprises of Scotland, Wales and England denotes that voters in Northern Ireland have no say, when they do. But anyway, let’s carry on with the guide.
Regarding the above posed question, Mr Cameron accepted a suggestion from the Electoral Commission in 2015 to change the offered responses from ‘Yes/No’ to ‘Remain/Leave’.
The referendum campaign has been preceded by the Prime Minister’s negotiations which took place with European leaders in a bid to secure a better deal for Britain’s relationship with the EU. That was a task and a half, and the concessions he returned to the UK with did not exactly go down well, with many within the Conservative party feeling he had not asked for enough, and had delivered on even less.
The Electoral Commission has since designated an official Remain campaign group and Leave campaign, which will be allocated funding from public money for campaigning. On the 13th April, we were informed Vote Leave has been designated as the official lead campaign for ‘Brexit’. It has the support of cabinet ministers and prominent Conservatives including Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Chris Grayling, and is chaired by the Labour MP Gisela Stuart. On the Remain side, the Electoral Commission confirmed that Britain Stronger in Europe will be the lead campaigner. This is the group that has been co-ordinating the campaigning activities of the Prime Minister, but yet also involves senior figures from the other major political parties. It is interesting to note that its application for the designation was uncontested.
Lead campaigners are permitted to spend up to £7 million – far higher than the standard £700,000 limit during elections – as well as a free mailshot to every household in Britain and a £600,000 public grant. What has already gone down like a lead balloon was the announcement that every household in the UK will receive a leaflet from the Conservative government urging them to vote Remain. This will cost some £9.3 million, and you guessed it – it will be funded by the taxpayer.
Separate from campaign groups, each political party is permitted to spend money in the referendum. Spending limits are linked to the number of votes won at last year’s General election, therefore the Conservatives can spend the most – up to £7 million – followed by Labour (£5.5 million), UKIP (£4 million) and the Liberal Democrats (£3 million).
Smaller parties from the devolved nations such as the SNP, the Greens, the DUP, and Plaid Cymru will be allocated £700,000 each to spend. Now, given almost every major political party is campaigning to stay in the EU, this surely will be to the disadvantage of those backing Brexit.
There will now be a ten-week period of official campaigning, which as I noted commenced last Friday. It’s going to be a long ten weeks indeed, judging by the media coverage. Yet as I noted previously, the Conservative pledge from last year promised to hold a referendum no later than 2017, therefore Mr Cameron did have until the end of 2017 to hold the referendum. He had in fact previously pledged not to rush into the vote until he had secured a satisfactory deal from his renegotiation. However, perhaps aware that it is better to hold the referendum sooner rather than later to ensure the Conservative party and thus the Conservative government can somehow come together again after bitter division, the decision was made to hold the referendum this coming June, which was the earliest opportunity. This was made in part due to the UK Parliament eventually ruling out holding the referendum on the same day as the Scottish, London, Welsh and Northern Irish elections on 5th May. (Yet party leaders from the devolved nations were not impressed at the decision, seeing as how the June referendum threatens to overshadow regional legislature elections.) Intriguingly, there were -and still are- fears that the tide of public opinion could swing against EU membership if the migration crisis continues to spirals out of control during the Spring and Summer months, making an earlier referendum even more critical to the Prime Minister’s hopes of keeping the UK within the EU.
And now we turn to the interesting and surprisingly convoluted issue of just who exactly is eligible to vote in the June referendum. This is an important point, as there are expectations of a record high turnout. And as we know, every vote counts, so knowing who can vote and thus who to target is vital. The simple answer is: if you are eligible to vote in Westminster General election, you are eligible to vote in the EU referendum. But it becomes a tad more difficult in relation to non-British citizens. I will start from the most straightforward case, that of British citizens.
British citizens over the age of 18 will be able to vote – unless they have lived outside of the country for more than 15 years. In spite of a campaign to extend the franchise to 16 and 17year olds, given the permanent reduction in the voting age in Scotland for the country’s own referendum in 2014, the UK Parliament voted to retain the existing franchise for Parliamentary elections. The consequence of this decision means that some young people who were able to vote in the Scottish independence referendum will not be able to vote on future of the UK’s membership of the EU.
Others affected by the decision not to change the franchise are British people who have lived abroad for more 15 years. For the third time, cast your mind back to last year, and the Conservative manifesto. The Conservatives had a commitment to introduce ‘votes for life’, meaning that despite living outside the UK, a citizen of same could still vote in the elections. The Conservative manifesto also include a pledge in relation to extending the franchise and making it easier to vote from abroad to British citizens who live abroad permanently. However, the government has not acted upon either commitment, and it is hard to see why: many living outside of the UK are either working abroad, or retired abroad, and Europe is a top destination for both. Surely these people who generally wish to see the UK remain within the EU, given that they are utilizing the EU’s free movement of persons pillar?
EU citizens will not be able to vote, unless they hail from Cyprus, Ireland or Malta. I know, I know. It’s very specific, but this is because the issue had become rather politicised, with some arguing that as the outcome of the referendum will affect them directly, they should be permitted to vote whilst others argued this was a vote solely for the British electorate to have their say. Since all but a select few EU citizens can vote, we are again presented with the strange scenario whereby EU citizens can vote in local, devolved and EU elections in the UK, and were able to vote in the referendum on Scottish independence, but cannot vote in the summer.
Citizens of Ireland and Commonwealth countries, however, can vote. (Are you lost yet?) This presents the paradoxical situation in that Irish citizens, who are of course EU citizens, can vote, unlike many of their fellow non-British, EU citizens. (So if I availed myself of my right to dual-nationality, and had an Irish passport, I could still vote.) It becomes more confusing when you realise it is not just Irish citizens living in the UK who can vote. Oh no. The remit extends to Irish citizens living overseas, but are registered to vote in Northern Ireland, and have been so in the past 15 years.
Moreover, Commonwealth citizens who live in the UK, having leave to remain in the UK or who do not need it are also eligible to vote in the summer.
I had previously mentioned the citizens of Malta and Cyprus qualify to vote. This is because of the peculiar situation they find themselves in: both are members of not only the EU, but the Commonwealth as well.
Citizens from British crown dependencies, such as Jersey, and British Overseas Territories, such as the British Virgin Islands, are also eligible.
But Leah, I hear you ask. That’s all well and good, listing off who can and who cannot vote. Yet why tell us? Is it really that important? Well, I could simply answer that being in the university library from eight this morning means I wanted a break from revision, and decided to write as much as possible to prevent having to return to the books. However, the real answer is that I find it rather fascinating.
You see, there are so many groups eligible to vote, each bringing different narratives and perspectives to the debate. That is interesting enough in itself, but we have to consider the extend this layered franchise can influence the overall outcome. I personally am intrigued to see how the Commonwealth citizens vote, for example. Some Commonwealth voters, could be inclined to vote Leave, believing the argument that leaving the EU would allow the UK to strengthen its ties with the Commonwealth and facilitate Commonwealth migration to the UK. On the other hand: with regards to the Irish contingent, the Republic is not keen on the UK withdrawing from the EU, ‘Brexit’ could affect their rights as well as their country’s economy and so desire a Remain victory. Essentially though, it is anyone’s guess, which is what makes it so interesting. It is hard to determine the impact that the above non-British voters will have, simply because they hail from diverse countries and backgrounds. Moreover, we are not sure as to the scale of the potential turnout, either. There are over one million foreign voters, but their turnout rate is unknown, and there is some evidence that they are less likely to register for elections participation than the rest of the population.The fact of the matter is, by excluding the majority of EU citizens from the electorate, there is a real possibility that the Prime Minister will lose votes for Remain.
Overall, the campaign is messy, with each side of the debate strongly fronting their own messages, complete with subjective statistical use and carefully constructed arguments and language use. The electorate is caught in the middle and probably none the wiser, unsure which argument to follow and which Team to join. It is going to be a a very long ten weeks, and with the polls constantly in flux, June looks set to be unpredictable. Not quite what we would like, given the historic moment and sheer importance of this referendum. My advice is this: if you are undecided, keep a clear head and try to research the EU as much as you can. If you are already committed to one side, double check your facts and arguments. And my most important piece of advice of all, for all? Vote.