Will EU citizens use London borough elections to send a message on Brexit?

Will EU citizens use London borough elections to send a message on Brexit?

Valentina Cipriani is doing a masters course in international journalism at City University. This is her first piece for On London.

London’s borough elections on 3 May could be the last time non-UK EU citizens are entitled to vote in the capital and pro-Remain parties are keen for them to turn out and use their vote to make their feelings known about Brexit.

Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan has called for EU citizens to punish Theresa May over “Brexit chaos”, while Liberal Democrat leaders have written to the Guardian, saying the elections present an opportunity for voters across London to send a message to Labour and the Conservatives, whose stance on Brexit “simply isn’t good enough”.

Meanwhile, advocate group the3million is campaigning to get EU citizens to vote and says it is having some success. “We are measuring how many people are going through our webpage to find information on how to vote, and the numbers are quite encouraging,” says the3million’s Alex Antoni. He adds that the effort London candidates are putting into persuading EU citizens to support their parties is a sign that many of them are expected to vote.

According to the group, it is not just about sending a national message. Its website contains a list of questions to ask your councillor designed to test their support for EU citizens’ rights at local level.

“The questions we are raising are actually local questions, Antoni says. “We are part of the local community, not separate from it. We want councils to look after us EU citizens, for example, when we have to apply and register for the new status. Councils can do much to help us, including putting a lot of pressure on the government.”

It is not easy to predict who EU citizens will vote for. Labour are not necessarily the obvious choice – despite the party’s strength in much of London, it has repeatedly been accused of sending confusing messages on a national level. Jeremy Corbyn has recently said he backs the UK being in “a customs union” with the EU, but has not committed to staying in the single market.

The Twitter hashtag #ABTV, which stands for Anti-Brexit Tactical Voting, calls for voting for “the pro-EU party most likely to win in your local election” in order to send a message to both of the two biggest parties. According to the ABTV website, this means Lib Dems should be the first choice, followed by the Green Party and by local pro-EU independent parties.

Approximately one million Londoners are EU citizens and in some boroughs their votes could be crucial. For example, Kensington & Chelsea has been a Conservative stronghold since its first borough election in 1964 and Tories currently hold 37 out of 50 council seats. But EU nationals make up more than 20% of the borough’s residents, and in the June 2016 referendum Remain secured 68.7% of the vote. In the following year’s general election, Emma Dent Coad’s shock capture of the Kensington constituency is likely to have owed something to a local reaction against Brexit.

Labour is a long way from winning power in Kensington & Chelsea, but hopes to close the gap significantly. They are doing their best to show their support for local EU neighbours. “Protecting Kensington and Chelsea residents from Brexit” occupies a full page of their manifesto. “Every Labour candidate is committed to do everything they can to assist EU citizens to assert their rights and to stay in this country,” says Robert Atkinson, leader of the council’s Labour Group. “We also sought to commit the council to write to EU citizens, reminding them that in this election, unlike in the referendum, they do have a right to vote. They make a huge contribution to the diversity and prosperity of Kensington and Chelsea.”

However, Labour has competition for EU citizens’ votes. Lib Dems too have been very vocal on the importance of EU citizens voting in this election. “Not only do they have the right to vote, but they must vote,” says Linda Wade, a Lib Dem councillor in the Earls Court ward. “They are residents, they have bought flats, they have had children here – they must express their point of view.”

Wade also emphasises the social impact the referendum outcome has had on the community. “I was talking to someone yesterday and he said to me: ‘I’ve been living here for 30 years, but I don’t feel welcome any longer’. The unfortunate side effect of the referendum is that it’s unleashed a xenophobia that I find totally unacceptable. The problem I have with Labour is that they don’t know where they are. Jeremy Corbyn seems to flip-flop about the importance of this. Sadiq Khan has at least been consistent, because he can see the enormous financial contribution that EU nationals make.”

Atkinson believes something is changing in Labour. “The direction of  travel of the Labour party is very clear – we are becoming more pro-Remain every single day,” he says. But in Kensington and Chelsea a third party is also in the chase for EU citizens’ votes. Advance, an independent local party founded by former Lib Dem candidate Annabel Mullin, is firmly pro-Europe and Advance has some EU citizens among its candidates.

“The establishment parties have let people down. We are a local party, we don’t have an eye on the national scheme and we want the council to be more open and more transparent,” says Peter Marshall, Advance candidate for Campden ward. “We are asking people to help us lobby the Home Office and the London Assembly to fight for EU citizens’ rights. As there are so many in Kensington and Chelsea, we can have a louder voice.”

Conservatives are expected to lose many seats in London, and in Kensington & Chelsea Brexit and reaction to the Grenfell Tower fire appear to be their weakest spots. Local Conservatives have failed to provide comment for On London, but the Tory strategy concentrates on local issues and council services, as it does elsewhere in the capital. “These local elections have nothing to to with Brexit,” said Conservative MP for Romford Andrew Rosindell, speaking to the BBC.

Advance’s Peter Marshall disagrees. “No local election in history has ever been completely independent from the national perspective. Waste collection is important but people don’t only care about bins – they care about being able to stay here.”

Many thanks to Valentina for her contribution to On London. Her website is here and she tweets here

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