Given the dislike of the closed list system of electing our MEPs, as well as concerns expressed about the selection process, I hosted a fringe event at the Spring Forum in Cheltenham attended by 70 people on the theme: “Would a Conservative Government keep PR for the European Elections?”
The event was chaired by Peter Facey, director of Unlock Democracy, and also on the panel was former Conservative councillor Havard Hughes, campaigns director for the Electoral Reform Society, who gave a view on the electoral systems used in Europe and made the case for the single transferable voting system to be used in the UK.
The debate centred around how we find a better system than the current closed list system of PR for electing and the postal ballot for selecting our MEPs. As the founder of the EU’s £150m Democracy Initiative, which supports the development of democracy worldwide, I believe an incoming Conservative government can consider in particular how to untangle Labour’s 1997 gerrymandering of the system.
Dan Hannan told the Spring Forum that 85% of our laws are made in Brussels, so it matters who represents Britain there – and how they are chosen by their parties. Of course, the media will focus on the chance that the BNP will take a Euro-seat in the North West – a slap in the face for Jack Straw, who devised the system – but there are wider and deeper issues that we must face.
We need to review which PR system we propose for European elections, perhaps re-introducing first-past-the-post constituencies mixed with a PR top-up as in Germany, Scotland and elsewhere, coupled with how we choose our Euro-candidates. Although Conservative Euro-candidates were selected by a system which will result in more women getting elected, gave every Party member a vote and at the same time respected incumbency, there were many complaints.
How democracy is sustained by us, whether at home or abroad, will be a crucial test. The European elections will never have the same pulling power as national elections: indeed, they are similar to the mid-term US elections, when turnout is low and participation in the primary selections abysmal. But they do matter, because what the EU does matters. And while the European Parliament is essentially a grand committee dedicated to making decisions as consensually as possible, unlike Westminster, which is notoriously confrontational and ideological, it is a fascinating place to work. So I should like to see it held in better regard, and elected on a system which people respect.
Questions taken from the floor at the fringe event were concerned with voter choice; party member choice; positive discrimination for women; minority parties having too much say; coalition governments; voter confusion on who represents them in Europe; and the European electoral regions regions being too large.
All of these subjects have been well argued on ConservativeHome. It is timely to restart the debate.