Question Time – Europe and PR

Oh dear. I have a feeling this may be a long one.

1) Nigel Farage makes a good point highlighting the absurdity of having an attendance allowance for the European Parliament, despite MEPs having an allowance intended for their incurred constituency expenses (an allowance isn’t the same thing as an expenses system; it’s merely an additional lump sum that is justified on the basis of something, there is no legal requirement to use it for this purpose). He claims the attendance allowance makes it less profitable to be in your ‘constituency’ (the word is used loosely here, the regions are ludicrously big and an MEP does not personally represent a region, he shares the representation of it with 5 or 6 other MEPs), therefore explaining why your MEP is never visible in your constituency and so few people are aware of who their MEP is and angry about said fact.

All so good so far, but there’s really a deeper reason why this is. It’s a peculiarly British concern in many ways to complain that they don’t know who ‘their’ MEP is, because we’re used to the single-member system for Westminster. In many countries in the Continent, this wouldn’t be an issue, because people would be used to the fact that they don’t have ‘their’ own MEP, rather they have several. List PR makes people more used to not having a direct representative and thus not expecting to see any one particular face around the constituency on a regular basis. In other words, List PR dilutes the principle of direct representation, and it’s just that we in Britain haven’t got used to that due to retaining a single-member system in Westminster.

However, there is more. There are many different forms of “List PR” (some which manage to be worse, admittedly, such as ones where the whole country is a single region, but “our system is not as bad as Israel’s” isn’t really too comforting a reflection), many of which at least attempt to counteract the dilution of direct responsibility. If we had a sensible, accountable form of open list, where MPs on the list are allocated on the basis of the number of votes they receive individually, it would at least create a certain incentive to be on some kind of name association terms with one’s constituents. In other words, certain PR systems at least create an incentive for representatives to know and be known to their constituents, however vaguely that is.

Not so our one. The Labour government, having committed itself to reforming the voting system for the EU Parliament along the lines laid down by the Maastricht treaty (if I recall correctly), decided to do so by instituting the worst PR voting system it could think of, namely Closed-list. No good defence has been offered for this monstrosity, and no good arguments are yet forthcoming. It is as if Labour deliberately wanted to stick two fingers up at the EU’s wish that member states should use some form of PR (“some form of PR” is rather vague, it is unclear whether that would include systems which are sometimes called PR, but really aren’t, like STV) – if this was the Conservatives, I could believe that explanation, but with New Labour I’m more inclined to suspect that it was a deliberate attempt to retain complete party control over the candidate election process.

What closed-list does is, very simply, to result in their being virtually no incentive whatsoever for MEPs to know constituents. MEPs can remain nameless, faceless, shadowy figures of mystery for all it matters, because closed-list means that the entire electoral process for elections to the European Parliament is done on the basis of brand recognition. William Pitt the Younger would be turning in his grave.

2) Jo Swinson takes this to be an excellent opportunity to slam the “attendance allowance” that Brown intended to introduce in Westminster but was forced out of doing by his backbench MPs and the opposition MPs. However, there are a few problems with this:

a) Westminster is, actually, quite a bit closer than Brussels to anywhere in the UK. This may sound a bit facetious, but it is actually an important consideration when coupled with the next one:

b) MPs already get working hours which are expressly intended to grant them enough time to serve in their constituency as well as the House of Commons. This is at least partly the reason they get such long holidays and generous working weeks.

c) MPs have a system of expenses rather than allowances. If they’re not working in their constituency as often, the logic is that they can’t claim as much in travel costs and other possible constituency related expenses. Therefore the logic of having an “attendance allowance” to contribute towards accommodation whilst an MP is working in Westminster fits, as the same logic is applied to constituency work. (Admittedly, this is not the way the existing expenses system has been used, as we are now finding out, but the point still stands as a good one, particularly as recent reforms have slightly tightened up the expenses system).

Obviously, it’s lovely to jump on the bandwagon in slamming Brown’s attendance allowance, but yet again I couldn’t help noticing that people slammed it because it was in use in Brussels more than by looking at the context. Also, I couldn’t help noticing the absence of anyone mentioning that it happens to be used in the House of Lords, too.

3) Someone in the audience makes a further point which cements my impression that PR is not a useful direction to turn in as a result of the expenses scandal. According to them, they don’t know how they should vote because “no party has come out of this better, they’re all just as mixed up in it as eachother” (a paraphrase, not a direct quote). The question automatically becomes this, then: if we already have the attitude that we’re not voting on individuals’ records but parties’ ones, in a system where we directly elect the individual politician, then how will a change to an even more party driven system of democracy help, given that this scandal is about the actions of individuals not parties? It is an illogical response to this scandal to pretend that PR would have helped, and arguing so indicates more of ideological bias than balanced consideration.

Due to the influence of having watched this far, and considered the above questions, I have set up the Manifesto for EU Democracy (see previous post). If you feel like continuing the debate about constitutional reform further here and there, feel free.

[This post is archived from June 1st, 2009. The Question Time it refers to was broadcasted on Thursday 28th May.]

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