This week I was in the audience at a Young Fabians* event about Britain and the EU with Mary Honeyball MEP as the speaker. The event was part of one of the Young Fabians Policy Commissions, with the aim of putting together ideas for the future EU policy of the Labour Party.
Mary, in her introduction, included a refrain that is all too familiar to any of us that follow the work of the UK’s MEPs – that their work is little appreciated, seldom understood, and that MEPs feel their role in their political parties is not held in high enough regard. It is not as if this complaint is restricted to Labour MEPs; it afflicts Tories too.
The problem, at least in part, rests with the election system that the UK uses to elect its MEPs, and how parties select their candidates.
The UK is divided up into 12 regions, with between 3 and 12 MEPs elected per region on closed lists. This means a voter can choose one party or another, but political parties have the complete say over the order of their candidates on the lists.
This, I said to Mary, is the very reason MEPs like her have a strong incentive to attend Fabian events packed with people who are also members of the Labour Party, as these people will determine whether MEPs will be reselected, and once at the top of a list everything is reasonably easy. The incentive to go out and talk to the general population is rather weak as a result.
To give Mary her due, she did acknowledge I had a point, but also of course stated that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas – i.e. that sitting MEPs have little determination to change the system.
There are two things that could be done – changes to Labour’s selection procedures, and changes to the election system.
First, in the Labour and Conservative parties, sitting MEPs are automatically placed at the top of the lists for the next election unless they are deselected beforehand. In the Liberal Democrats it’s subtly different; sitting MEPs and new candidates are mixed in together, giving new candidates a chance to rival sitting MEPs in a fair fight. This change – to allow a free-for-all on the Labour lists – would require a party rule change to accomplish, and would keep sitting MEPs on their toes.
Longer term, a change to the election rules would be most welcome. Countries such as Ireland, Netherlands and Sweden use open list or Single Transferable Vote systems to elect MEPs. This means that candidates need to appeal not only within their parties, but directly to the electorates as well. While this undoubtedly does not eradicate the democratic deficit in the EU institutions, it at least gives electorates a choice of an individual and a choice of party, and that is to be welcomed. Young and dynamic MEPs such as Åsa Westlund** of the Swedish Social Democrats and Marietje Schaake of the Dutch Social Liberals (D66) are candidates who used the open list system to leapfrog their more experienced colleagues, and the European Parliament is undoubtedly stronger for their presence.
* Just for the record – I am a member of the Fabian Society but no longer young enough to qualify as a Young Fabian!
** Declaration of interest – I do website design work for Åsa