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.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.