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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 February 2007, 13:20 GMT
Tories seek votes Down Under
By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

Could 'Pom Power' help decide the next UK election? Certainly, the idea seems to have taken hold at Conservative Party headquarters.

Gold Coast, Australia
Australia's Gold Coast is seen as an expat target for Tories

Party chairman Francis Maude has come to Australia in search of electoral gold: the 500,000 British expatriates whose votes he believes could help make David Cameron the next prime minister.

His visit down under has been an exercise in pre-election prospecting: finding out ways to mine the great untapped resource that is the UK's global expatriate community.

It has been estimated that somewhere between 2 million and 3 million Britons live abroad, although a recent study from the Institute for Public Policy Research put the figure much higher at 5.5 million.

The IPPR reckoned a staggering 1.3 million could be found in Australia - the largest grouping in any one country.

"There's a huge outflow of people from Britain, something like 200,000 a year, and it's thought there are something like 2 to 2.5 million British people living aboard who are entitled to vote," Mr Maude told the BBC.

There are all sorts of reasons, other than the merely emotional reasons, for people continuing to take an interest, and be entitled to express a view.
Francis Maude
Conservative Party chairman

"Only a handful are registered. It's less than 20,000. That's a pity."

Unquestionably, there is demographic logic to paying the "Pom vote" particularly close attention.

In 2005, about 21,780 UK nationals left Britain to settle in Australia, a 30% rise on the previous year.

The number has doubled over the past three years.

Remarkably, three out of every four migrants who arrive here from Europe are British, and for the past three years the United Kingdom has been the major source country for migrants coming to live in Australia.

And then there are the British tourists in Australia on extended holidays who might wish to vote at home - could a "hug a backpacker" speech soon be in the offing?

The Conservatives have already identified the expat equivalent of three swing constituencies: Perth, Sydney, and, appropriately enough, the Gold Coast.

Leaving England doesn't mean you lose interest, says Francis Maude

Nobody knows for sure, but Sydney might contain even more UK voters than Basildon, one of the key swing seats seen as predicting the outcome of general elections.

And could the residents of North Bondi ultimately have as big an impact as the burghers of Bury South?

"You don't lose interest in your home country when you move abroad," says Mr Maude.

"They've got family back home, and many of them will have financial interests at home, and draw their pension from Britain. So there are all sorts of reasons, other than the merely emotional reasons, for people continuing to take an interest, and be entitled to express a view."

The prospect of UK-style electioneering coming to Australian shores certainly fires the political imagination.

But sadly there are no plans as yet for David Cameron to make a quick pre-election visit, travelling the coastline in a clapped out VW "battle" camper van or riding the surf at Bondi. Mr Maude has been quick to rule out "a global tour in the warmest places in the world".

Instead, the Tory chairman hopes to attract voters electronically, through the Tory's website, Don't Leave Your Vote At Home, which sets out how expats can flex their growing democratic muscle. Should they win power, the Conservatives are also promising electoral reforms to make it easier for expats to vote.

Tower Bridge
While Aussies can simply vote in England, Brits have a more difficult time in Australia

Under current laws, any British national living overseas is entitled to vote for up to 15 years after leaving the UK in the constituency where they were last registered. But the process of registering is somewhat laborious.

It involves contacting the electoral registration at the local council where you last lived, downloading the relevant forms from the Electoral Commission's website, or visiting a British diplomatic mission.

Once all the necessary paperwork is complete, overseas electors can cast their vote by post or by proxy. But postal votes are only sent out about one week before polling day, making them impracticable for most overseas voters. Finding a suitable proxy can also can present problems.

Britain's lack of fixed-term governments adds an extra layer of complication. The dates of elections can be sprung on the electorate at any time without any warning, making it difficult, if not impossible, to register in time.

Though short of specifics, Mr Maude would ideally like to streamline the process: "We'd like to make it easier. An Australian in England can do a postal ballot at the Australian High Commission in London. Now you can't do that in our system. You have to have a proxy who will exercise your vote physically."

It seems vaguely absurd to suggest that people living half a planet away in Australia could help reshape Britain's electoral landscape. But "Pom Power" is certainly a force to be reckoned with.

Could we even see the post-election day when the Sun records: "It was Oz wot won it"?

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