By Tim Farron
Today is Commonwealth Day and on behalf of my party I welcome the relationships we share with our friends and partners across the Commonwealth. But not all parts of the coalition seem to agree.
"It is ridiculous that the government of a country like ours could be decided by those who are not British citizens. It is high time we brought this law up to date."
So said Liam Fox, the former defence secretary, to the Times. Fox is upset at a law which allows Commonwealth citizens living in the UK to vote in general elections. Leaving aside the blatant pandering to Ukip, his substantive point is just plain wrong. Those voters "who are not British citizens" in fact come from Ireland and the Commonwealth. Given the frequent suggestion emanating from the Tory benches that we should re-orient ourselves towards the Commonwealth and away from Europe, it's bizarre to find similar voices totally at odds with this reasoning. Talk about mixed messages.
Under Fox's plans, 345,000 Irish, 306,000 Indians, 180,000 Pakistanis, 73,000 Australians and 52,000 Zimbabweans would be 'kicked off the electoral register', along with Nigerians, Ghanaians, Sri Lankans and Canadians. I will fight tooth and nail against proposals to remove their right to vote.
But this isn't just a policy football kicked around by just Fox and the chair of the influential backbench 1922 committee, Graham Brady. It's also been looked at by Labour. Lord Goldsmith, when he was attorney general, stated his belief in a "clear connection between citizenship and the right to vote".
Let’s focus for a moment on what this means – the NHS nurse, the hard-pressed teacher and the bus driver, all of whom help to ensure our essential services keep running, will at a stroke lose their democratic voice.
I believe immigration has been a good thing, not just for our economy, but for our country as a whole. Many of the people who have the right to vote here are descended from families who fought alongside Britain during our darkest hour in World War Two. I cannot believe the Conservatives and Labour have considered the ramifications of such a policy. But I do believe that we should hold them to account for it.
As a party we can up our game by showing public support for these communities' right to vote, and by encouraging BAME [Black, Asian, and minority ethnic] communities' engagement in the democratic process. Let's do all we can to let people know who is standing up for their right to vote – and who wants to strip it away.
Tim Farron is Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale.
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