What would French-style overseas constituencies for the House of Commons look like?

Vote early, vote often, vote from abroad. Image: Getty.

To those of us who are neither French nor Francophiles, it can come as a great surprise to learn that the United Kingdom has a seat in the French National Assembly. It’s represented, as part of a wider Northern Europe constituency,  by Alexandre Holroyd, a député who grew up in West London.

But then of course why would we know? It’s only French expats that get the vote. La République is one of a small number of nations that allows its citizens resident abroad to vote for their own overseas MPs.

Here in the UK, expatriates can only vote in the constituency that they were last a resident of in their home country. In 2017, overseas voting in a UK general election hit record levels, in part due to risks faced by British expats because of Brexit. Even so, only an estimated 20 per cent of eligible expats were registered to vote.

With expat political participation at such paltry levels, perhaps its time for us to consider creating our own overseas constituencies.

If we did choose, first we’d need to know how many we would need. In 2017 285,000 expats registered to vote. The average electorate of a UK constituency is about 70,424. With a bit of rounding, that means overseas voters would be entitled to four constituencies.

But, the whole point of overseas constituencies is that they are supposed to boost participation. According to Number Cruncher Politics 7.9 million eligible people are not on the electoral roll in the UK, which means about 83 per cent of people are registered to vote. If expat registration was as high as 83 per cent, then overseas voters would be entitled to 17 constituencies.

The next question is what would the boundaries of these constituencies look like? Estimates of how many British people live in each foreign country are difficult to find, and I’ve ended up using research from the IPPR from 2006 to estimate what percentage of British expats are in each country to determine how much representation in Westminster each country is entitled to. (I’ve assumed the basic distribution of Brits abroad has stayed roughly the same since then.)

For example, with 24 per cent of British expats in 2006, Australia would almost be entitled to a MP of its own if there were four overseas constituencies.

Below are possible electoral boundary maps for my four and seventeen constituency scenarios. I’ve tried to make sure each constituency has a roughly equal expat population and is geographically contiguous where possible.

Four constituencies: Europe; Australia & New Zealand; the Americas; Africa, Asia & the Caribbean.

Seventeen constituencies: Australia (x4); Spain (x2); USA (x2); Canada (x2); France, Belgium & Germany; Ireland; Rest of Europe; New Zealand; Africa; Asia; South America, the Caribbean & Middle East.

Without knowing where British expats live in countries which are entitled to more than one constituency in my latter 17 constituency scenario, I’ve taken the executive decision not to draw accurate internal boundaries – maybe they could use STV?

Now the big question: how would these constituencies vote in a UK general election? Overseas constituencies in France were the initiative of President Sarkozy, who aimed to boost participation among a group of voters who had historically tended to vote for the right.


In the UK, it is the Conservatives who have in the past extended the right of expats to vote, while the Labour party has curtailed it. The last Labour government reduced the number of years after a voter leaves the country for which they can continue to vote to 15, and the party recently opposed a private members bill sponsored by Tory MP Glyn Davies which proposed to do away with any such limit whatsoever and give expats votes for life. (To be fair, Labour is against extending the limit because of the potential administrative costs faced by local councils to facilitate this.)

Yet, since elections have been held for French overseas constituencies the right have not done as well as they might have hoped. In 2012 the Socialists won 7 out of 11 of districts, while in 2017 President Macron’s En Marche won 8 of the 11 expat districts. While higher than average income globetrotters might have once voted right, perhaps the gradual realignment of politics around the issue of globalisation means that the liberal centre-left (represented in France first by the Socialists, now by Macron, and in Britain by either Labour or the Liberal Democrats) can sweep up the expat vote. Without overseas constituencies of our own it’s hard to tell if that would be the case here.

It’s fun to draw maps though. All maps modified from Wikipedia Commons. All calculations are very rough and should be taken as loose estimates rather than proper academic research. Don’t blame CityMetric for any failures of democracy.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.