BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 January 2008, 15:56 GMT
Politics at a distance
By Lucy Wilkins
BBC News

Spread thinly around the world, hundreds of Britons actively keep up to date with political developments back in Westminster, but why do they bother so far from home?

About 3,500 miles from Westminster and its daily quibbles over policy and parties sits a man "hyper-interested" in the Labour Party.

Polling Station
Ex-pats miss out on the delights on UK polling stations

He's British but he can't vote.

He lives in New York so whether England is, for example, smoke-free or not has no direct bearing on his life, yet he has for decades maintained his connection to the party he began active involvement with as a teenager.

Chris Jones, now in his 60s, is one of hundreds of ex-pats whose links with their native country have yet to be dented by distance, time or election outcome.

According to official figures there are 14,000 Britons living overseas who have registered to vote in elections in England and Wales, with 1192 registered for the Scottish elections.

Estimating the number of Britons living abroad is harder - the Electoral Commission uses data from the Foreign Office which suggests 13 million are living overseas, but other research indicates it could be as low as 5.5 million.

Gordon Brown and George Bush
Even if Gordon Brown spends just 10 minutes with us, it's just a way of encouraging us
Chris Jones
Labour Party in New York

Out of those thousands abroad, Labour International has 750 members in 40 countries, while the Tories have 34 branches of Conservatives Abroad in 19 countries.

Wearing his red Labour Party tie in mid-town Manhattan as he takes a break from his job as a financial consultant, Mr Jones compares his political zeal with football fanaticism.

"Who knows what it means to have allegiances these days in the global world? There are British people in this country who gather in bars in the early hours to watch their football team play on satellite TV. We're just like that."

He pauses when asked how his loyalty remains so strong so far from home. "It's just there," he says.

It is the myriad connections to places he has come from that has formed the person he is today - originally Welsh, he also considers himself British, as well as a Londoner and from Essex (he last voted in Hornchurch), while over the pond he's been a New Yorker for 30-odd years, having lived in Manhattan and the Bronx.

The constant is his Labour membership.

Tony Blair in 1997
Tony Blair's victory inspired Labourites here and abroad

Technology has at least made it easier to keep in touch. It used to take five days for the Sunday Times to arrive in Manhattan - and cost five times the price.

These days Mr Jones browses four British broadsheets online every day, with particular interest in the political news.

So devoted to Labour is he that when he read a newspaper article in 1992 about Margaret Thatcher's fundraising dinner in Texas, it was an epiphany.

"I thought if they can do it, so can we." After getting permission from the Labour Party in London Mr Jones and fellow Labourites in Boston, San Francisco and Washington joined him for a meeting in New York at a union headquarters - "faithful to the party roots" - and declared themselves part of the Labour Party.

It was for the 1997 election that they geared up to help the cause. "We adopted the New Labour glitz approach" which included a "power breakfast in a mid-town restaurant".

"New York is a gateway to the US and you also have the United Nations here. In the run-up to the 97 election people were coming and there was a sense we were needed, that we could offer exposure," Mr Jones says.

Brush with celebrity

With Labour's 1997 victory and new prime minister Tony Blair visiting the US, a reception of New York's finest was held in the residence of Harold Evans, former Sunday Times editor, and his wife Tina Brown.

Conservative leader David Cameron
Tory supporters abroad pine for the Tory Britain

Step forward 10 years and Gordon Brown has not yet met with this overseas constituency - to Mr Jones' dismay. "Even if he spends just 10 minutes with us, it's just a way of encouraging us."

These days there are about 50-odd New York members, professionals in their 40s-50s. Not all turn up to meetings, but the organising committee try to arrange events around visits by select committees and backbenchers - "so it's not the image of monthly branch meetings in the local hall with chipped tea cups", he jokes.

And Americans are often invited along too - "to tell them about us, about other countries".

Having lived so long abroad, Mr Jones can no longer vote. He and others once lobbied strongly for a "use it or lose it" policy, but instead the Labour government reduced it to 15 years from the Tories' 20 years.

I've always been Conservative and I would like to see the Conservatives running Britain
Miranda Green
Conservatives Abroad, Buenos Aires

Seventy-one-year-old Miranda Green has been abroad about as long as Mr Jones - but she is across the political divide as organiser for Conservatives Abroad in Buenos Aires.

With no political experience, it was a job the businesswoman took on only after the previous organiser returned to Britain.

Members are typically businessmen working for the English companies - "or they have been English for three generations, and just believe in a Conservative government", Mrs Green says.

"Most of them have British passports but can't vote and are saying what's the point of it? The ones who can vote say that they don't need to use us because they can vote through their own constituencies."

Electoral Commission poster campaign
The Electoral Commission aims to remind Britons to vote from abroad

She says the Buenos Aires branch meets annually, although as an Argentinean resident for 40 years, she's long since past being able to vote - as are all of the 40-odd members of her branch.

Her adopted country may have had its own political turmoil over the years and Mrs Green still finds time to pine for a Tory Britain.

"I wasn't very fond of Mr Blair, and I don't like Brown - I've always been Conservative and I would like to see the Conservatives running Britain."

Links are maintained with the Conservatives Abroad back in London, and Mrs Green keeps up to date with political developments.

"But it's not that easy being so far away and so cut off. We don't have much connection, and the Falklands Islands is a taboo subject, we don't talk about it."

When it comes to recruiting, she says she tries to contact the large British companies such as BP, and occasionally an advert goes in a local newspaper read by Britons encouraging them to vote if they happen to be passing through the country.

But, as with all the big parties elsewhere across the globe, the figures suggest that getting the British expat vote out can be a bit of a struggle.

And despite the Electoral Commission's best efforts that seems hardly surprising, given that only about 60% of those who actually live in the UK bothered to vote in the last general election.

Here is a selection of your comments:

Oh yes, I keep a watchful eye on the UK politics from here in sunny well run Dubai and never fail to think what a wise move I made moving here several years ago! The crime rate is very low and should one step out of line the punishment meted out fits the crime which I might add is not the case in the UK. Will I be voting in the UK ? NEVER EVER AGAIN.
Edwin Gilmore, Dubai UAE

I've been an expat for 21 years so I can't vote in the UK anymore, however, I still use the internet and BBC America to keep up to date with UK politics. I'm a libertarian socialist so I've been sad to see the direction that Thatcher and then New Labour took the country. When I move back I'll vote for the party that best protects personal liberty and public services.
Clive Standley, Boston USA

I left the UK 13 years ago and firmly believe that in doing so I relinquished my right to any vote there. If you don't live in the UK, then you shouldn't have a say in it. The only exception might be armed forces serving abroad.
Bill Harrison, Brussels.

I left the UK partly due to the way in which politicians (of all colours) have let the country down. I'm glad to be away from the their false world and emtpy and inept policies. I'm totally ambivalent towards UK politics now and can't understand why others Brits abroad are remotely interested.
Steve Ilkovics, New Plymouth, New Zealand

People in Britain have a somewhat outdated view of their countrymen and women who live abroad. National borders are becoming less important in this globalised world... Britons abroad should have the right to vote without limit, my ties to Britain have become stronger not weaker over the years.
Ian Martin, Bangkok Thailand

I'm in Oz and very much wanted to vote, however - it's very difficult. I'd have to get my father to vote on my behalf but he lives 200 miles north of where I lived and its a nightmare. The Expat voting only works if you have people who you can trust to sort things out. Roll on On-line voting...
Jim, Brisbane, Australia

Tried to vote but unable to. Why? My voting papers arrived day after voting closed despite being registered for over a year to vote overseas. On diplomatic service so British taxpayer and this is second time this happened. Told all papers sent out at same time regardless of where they have to go. Not encouraging is it?
PMcGonagle, Mumbai India (Dover District UK)

It isn't easy when the electoral office in Sevenoaks sends the necessary papers by 2nd class post to Australia. I'd be surprised if any of our votes had time to get back to be counted.
Susan, Brisbane, Australia

Surprised ex-pats don't vote? By law, 'no postal ballot paper can be issued until after 5pm on the eleventh day before the date of an election' so in many cases ex-pats are just not given sufficient time to return a postal vote. I wonder why ...
Alan Webb, Perth, Western Australia

I left the UK in 1993 so can no longer vote in the UK. As I am a British citizen, I can not vote in general elections in France either. I am certainly not a French citizen, but my employment is not in the UK, so I do not see myself returning. Democracy, where are you?
Emma Smith, Strasbourg, France

Who wants to keep the political flame alive for Britain ? None of the parties represent majority opinion and they all tell lies. Best to watch the ship sink from afar and feel lucky you are not on it.
M Walkling, London

Hey, come on you either live here or you don't .. you should only vote if you have to live under the rules you voted for, butt out and vote in your adopted country .
S Dare , Paignton Devon



RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites



FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

PRODUCTS & SERVICES

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific