Will giving ‘full voting rights to EU nationals’ be a leadership commitment Starmer keeps?

Sir Keir Starmer is reportedly planning to give millions of EU citizens the right to vote if Labour returns to power at the next general election. Under manifesto plans, the Labour leader is said to be preparing a “package of proposals” which would include handing the vote to settled migrants and 16 and 17-year-olds.

It is expected the move to extend the franchise to EU citizens would affect around 3.4 million people “settled” in Britain. 2.6 million EU citizens have also already achieved “pre-settled” status and could therefore receive voting rights in the future.

But since the news first broke in the pages of the Telegraph, Labour has insisted that no final policy decisions have been made.

“There’s no settled policy here — we’re looking at, and this is what the papers are reflecting on, this idea of whether or not EU nationals should be able to vote in our national elections”, Starmer told an LBC phone-in programme.

Back in 2020, however, when Sir Keir was running for the Labour leadership, he committed to extending the franchise for all EU nationals in no uncertain terms.

“We were never just ‘tolerating’ EU citizens living in this country — they are our neighbours, friends and families”, Sir Keir wrote in an op-ed for the Guardian as he battled to succeed Jeremy Corbyn. 

Selling the proposal as a way of ending the “leave-remain divide” in Britain, the then-shadow Brexit secretary argued: “To see [EU nationals’] status in doubt devastates our sense not just of justice but also of fellowship”.

But the news that Sir Keir may be looking to act on this aspect of his election platform comes just weeks after a recent decision to abandon the Labour party’s position on abolishing tuition fees. 

This was just the latest retreat from the political pledges penned by Sir Keir during the 2020 leadership election. Among the other commitments to hit the Starmerite scrap heap in recent months include the abolition of universal credit and the nationalisation of Royal Mail, energy companies and water companies. 

However, Starmer denies that the 10 promises he made during the 2020 race to succeed Corbyn have been abandoned, insisting they remain “important statements of value and principle”.

He told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme in February: “What I’ve had to do is obviously adapt some of them to the circumstances we find ourselves in. Since I ran for leader, we’ve had Covid. Since I ran for leader, we’ve had the conflict in Ukraine. Since I ran for leader, we’ve had a government that’s done huge damage to our economy”.

Pledge “six” of Sir Keir’s ten commandments was to “Defend migrants’ rights”, an umbrella statement of principle which encapsulated his drive to grant “full voting rights for EU nationals”. 

Might this, therefore, be a leadership commitment Starmer can keep as the political temperature heightens ahead of a general election expected in 2024?

It is worth noting that the idea of extending the franchise to more EU nationals in the UK is proving controversial in some quarters, with the Conservatives branding the move “an attempt to rig the electorate to re-join the EU”.

A Conservative spokesperson told the Telegraph newspaper that any move on voting rights amounted to Starmer “laying the groundwork” for a fresh referendum. However, this is despite the fact that settled EU migrants are already able to cast their vote in some elections, including for the Welsh and Scottish parliaments, local councils, and police and crime commissioners. Irish and Commonwealth nationals also have the right to vote in general elections provided they are UK residents and register cast their vote.

As for what the move tells us about Starmer, it may be interpreted as a message to Labour Party activists that the Labour leadership has not, in fact, abandoned its progressive values wholesale. It gives meaning to Starmer’s strained insistence that the 10 promises he made during the 2020 race to succeed Corbyn have not been entirely jettisoned.

Additionally, with Starmer so anxious to avoid giving the Conservative party ammunition for an offensive on “tax and spend”, a commitment to extend the franchise provides essentially the best of both worlds: Sir Keir can stress his progressive instincts with no money splurged. 

Party activists are appeased while the Conservative attack dogs are left hungry (on fiscal matters, at least).

The move may also build on Sir Keir’s pitch as a quiet radical, pursuing substantive and effecting constitutional change without high tax commitments which might taint his post-Corbyn positioning. 

Of course, when British voters are asked what they think of Starmer, they tend to use words like “boring”, “bland” or “dull” — as recent polling by JL Partners underlines. Sir Keir, on the other hand, wants to be seen as “reforming” and a leader concerned with exacting and enacting “change”. So the problem for the Labour leader is that he wants to be viewed as radical without being seen to raid treasury coffers. 

Building on long-trailed commitments on devolution and House of Lords reform, therefore, votes for EU nationals may just appear to square this peculiarly Starmerite circle.