Do you know who your MEP is?
That is a trick question. You will have between three and ten MPs depending on where you live. MEPs are elected by party list on a proportional representation basis, for enormous constituencies – there are twelve, jumbo EU constituencies in the UK, as compared with 650 for our national Parliament in Westminster.
I bet you have no idea how many MEPs you have, let alone who any of them are.
Have you ever tried to meet to any of your MEPs? Your Westminster MP is likely to hold surgeries, both with and without appointment, to offer phone calls, skype, and home visits. In stark contrast, your MEPs are unlikely to expect or encourage electors to meet them. They deal mainly with lobby groups.
So another fair bet is that you have no idea what any of your MEPs think, let alone what they do.
Does that matter?
Yes, of course it does. One of the problems with the EU, in the recent words of Mervyn King (in the Daily Telegraph on 28th February 2016), is the gap between its “…. centralised elite on the one hand, and the forces of democracy at the national level on the other.”
Whatever their good intentions and whichever platform they stand on, without constant personal contact with voters, MEPs cannot help but become part of the centralised elite, not of the forces of democracy.
Many MEPs would probably not disagree with this, but would shrug their shoulders and say “it ain’t going to change”. Working out a system that works better and getting agreement for its implementation across all 28 member states would be just too difficult to be worth bothering with. Anyway, not having voters to deal with saves their time and energy. It means MEPs can get on with the real business of politics as they would see it, that is all the stuff that goes on in Brussels and Strasbourg.
Into the space between MEPs and their voters will step the demagogues. That is already happening. If we do nothing it can only get worse.
An obvious solution to the ‘democratic deficit’ (the polite name for the gap between the elite and the electorate) would be to give the European Parliament more power. To the EU elite that will seem the easiest and the most congenial solution. But unless the EU Parliament is reformed so that it engages with its electorate, giving it more power will make things worse still.
What is the answer? Smaller, single MEP constituencies and a single transferable vote system would definitely be a good start.
Party list proportional representation may work perfectly well in some places and for some purposes, but it is not working for us and our MEPs.
Nor did it work, for rather similar reasons, for Germany between 1918 and 1933. There too, the result of party list proportional representation was a gap between the electorate and the elite into which the demagogues stepped, one demagogue being of particular infamy. It did not end well.
It would be wrong to blame the advent of Nazism in Germany entirely on defects in the voting system adopted by the Weimar Republic in 1918. (There is a very good account of what happened in Edgar Feuchtwanger’s ‘From Weimar to Hitler‘. Mr Feuchtwanger was brought up in Munich in the 1930s and used to walk past Adolf Hitler’s apartment on his way to school). All the same, the lesson is clear. If we do not fix what is quite clearly wrong with our representative systems, we are asking for trouble.