Election '97 : Tories fishing for votes in the Algarve

John Rentoul on wooing the expatriates
Click to follow
Maybe this is what the 56 per cent of Britons who are bored by the election campaign should have done. Members of Conservatives Abroad in the Algarve, in Portugal, have arranged for party workers in Britain to cast proxy votes on their behalf, while they watch the election results on a large-screen television at an all-night party at the Hotel Garbe. "Running finger buffet and pay bar, 2,500 Escudos [pounds 9] per person," says the invitation.

But Tory expatriate election-night parties seem likely to be overshadowed by Labour celebrations in such unlikely places as Hollywood, Cyprus, South Africa and Australia. The New York Labour branch is holding a champagne party in the trendy SoHo brasserie, Pravda.

The Tory plan to mobilise two million potential voters abroad has fizzled out, according to figures released by the Office for National Statistics.

A total of only 23,583 expats have registered for the election - an average of just 36 in each constituency. Even if, as Labour used to fear, expats are overwhelmingly right-leaning in their politics, they are unlikely to tip the result even in a single constituency. Only the Tory-held Vale of Glamorgan was decided by a margin smaller than this (19 votes) at the last election.

Labour has repeatedly accused the Government of changing the law for party political advantage. The law was first changed in 1985 to allow UK citizens living abroad to vote in British parliamentary and European elections. Conservatives Abroad was formed the following year, and now claims 4,000 members in 49 branches around the world, including 13 in Spain and four in Portugal.

The law was amended in 1989 to include those who had left the country up to 20 years ago, rather than 10 years. And it was changed again last year, to give expats a tax incentive to register to vote. Registering can no longer be used by the Inland Revenue as one of the factors to decide domicile for tax purposes. Expats who are "domiciled" in Britain have to pay inheritance tax on their worldwide assets when they die. The move, condemned by Labour as "a blatant tax bribe", proved unsuccessful in encouraging more expats to register.

Malcolm Dumper, elections officer for Southampton city council, said: "Overseas registrations have gone down in recent years."

UK citizens living abroad may not vote by post, but can appoint a "proxy" to vote on their behalf in the constituency in which they last lived, and all the main parties offer to find party workers who can fulfil this function.

Art Malik, the Labour-supporting actor, says: "The largest expat community in the world is in Santa Monica. It is full of people who say that if Labour gets in, they're not going back. You just look at them and say: `But the Conservatives are in and you're not there!' "