Back to the 1970s?

European parliament

Oh dear. If Jack Straw’s call for the abolition of the European parliament was intended to be provocative, it has provoked me.

The European parliament may be very imperfect, but it is the only bit of the EU ordinary voters get to have any input into or any representative voice in.

Jack says the turnout in European parliament elections is too low, but turnout is also low in local authority elections and I’ve not seen calls for councils to be abolished on this basis. If he is worried about turnout, why not look at compulsory voting, or timing the elections so they coincide with other elections?

If, as Jack says, turnout is the indicator of the legitimacy of a parliament, then the House of Commons is 10 or 12 per cent less legitimate than it was 20 years ago.

He calls for ‘an assembly of national parliaments’ to replace the European parliament. This is a reversion to the system in the 1970s when national MPs were sent as delegations of MEPs, rather than MEPs being directly elected.

There was a reason for this being abolished – it had no democratic legitimacy.

MPs are elected with a national mandate to consider UK-wide issues and represent their constituencies.

Europe is just one of myriad issues considered by voters when they cast votes in a general election. Would we want a European parliament full of people elected not because of their stance on EU policies but because of their stand on domestic issues like the NHS or the economy? Similarly, would we want Europe to suddenly become the key issue at general elections – from a partisan Labour perspective this might not be a very sensible move?
As MPs represent specific geographical constituencies, who would speak in Jack’s European assembly for the constituency interests of those seats whose MPs were not part of the UK’s delegation to the assembly?

If there was no MP put on the delegation from, for instance, the main fishing ports, which are hugely affected by EU policy, this could be a big problem.

How would constituents of MPs moonlighting to be MEPs in Brussels and Strasbourg feel about the reduced representation they would be getting in the Commons? The time commitment would be immense.

I worry that Jack doesn’t understand what MEPs do. The job is far more technical than being a Westminster MP and involves a different skillset and personality-type. Confrontational and partisan Commons chamber speechmaking, dogged pursuit of casework and select committee style scrutiny are not transferable skills to a European level. MEPs need to be skilled negotiators who can broker diplomatic deals across 27 country blocs of members and seven transnational political groups. The most important part of an MEP’s work is sitting in committee actually initiating and drafting legislation as well as line-by-line scrutiny of Commission and Council proposals. Are there really a bunch of Westminster MPs with the mood, inclination and spare time to do this kind of work on top of their day job at the Commons? Are they prepared to accept the loss of political profile that happens when you spend time abroad sat in a committee room doing important but dull work instead of being visible to your constituents back in the UK?

I think Jack’s proposal is insulting and disrespectful to his colleagues in the European Parliamentary Labour Party. It represents a kind of chauvinism too often found in the Commons where MPs think that the world revolves around Westminster and that being an MP is the only worthwhile political office to hold – that MEPs, or indeed MSPs, assembly members, mayors and council leaders are second-class politicians.

I am astonished by his statement that ‘the EU should not be involved in issues like the working time directive, health and safety’. The trade union movement is relying on the EU to defend workers’ rights while we have an anti-union government here in the UK. Why would we want to disempower a layer of government that is defending a social democratic and trade union agenda?

Rather than talking down the European parliament we should be publicising and showcasing the work Labour MEPs are doing, trying to recruit top quality candidates to stand to be MEPs in 2014, and devising strategies and messaging to popularise our European agenda and maximise turnout and the Labour vote in these important elections.

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Luke Akehurst is a constituency representative on Labour’s NEC, a councillor in Hackney, writes regularly for Progress here, and blogs here

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Photo: European Parliament

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  • SVP

    Passim: MEPs cannot initiate legislation under EU law.

  • http://twitter.com/jonworth Jon Worth

    Erm, how often does legislation initiated by the House of Commons get on the statute book? Very seldom, because Private Members Bills are timed out. MEPs are skilled at using the tools at their disposal to set an agenda – through own initiative reports, sunset clauses and through the EU budget.

  • http://twitter.com/jonworth Jon Worth

    Erm, how often does legislation initiated by the House of Commons get on the statute book? Very seldom, because Private Members Bills are timed out. MEPs are skilled at using the tools at their disposal to set an agenda – through own initiative reports, sunset clauses and through the EU budget.

  • http://twitter.com/jonworth Jon Worth

    One additional point – raised at the IPPR event – was that a change to the way MEPs are selected and elected in the UK might make some improvement. I have written more about the event at which Jack made his comments here.

  • http://twitter.com/tommilleruk Tom Miller

    Strongly agree with all of this.

    “Jack says the turnout in European parliament elections is too low, but turnout is also low in local authority elections and I’ve not seen calls for councils to be abolished on this basis. If he is worried about turnout, why not look at compulsory voting, or timing the elections so they coincide with other elections?”

    Yep.

  • Barry Edwards

    If “MEPs need to be skilled negotiators who can broker diplomatic deals ” then why didn’t Nick Clegg bring those skills back with him when he switched from being an MEP to MP?

  • Paul Sellers

    If it wasn’t for the European Parliament then even more workers would be at risk from dangerously long hours. The Social Affairs Council of ministers wanted to weaken the legislation and it is greatly to the credit of the EP – inclduing British Labour MEPS and some of the more progressive LDs – that they blocked this attack on health legislation.

    Lettting the UK’s long hours culture continue was a significant failing of the last Labour Government. The issue is that regularly working more than 48 hours per week significantly increases the risk of contracting heart disease, stress, depression and diabetes.

    Even now, with the economy stuck at the bottom, 3 million people regularly work more than 48 hrs pr week. At a time when unemployment and underemployment are rising this looks increasingly like the haves vs the have nots. I’m familiar with the difficulties involved in sharing out the work available more fairly, but surely the UK can do better than this.

  • Anne Fairweather

    I couldn’t agree more Luke. Being a MEP is a full time job, I have no idea how a MP could do both roles.

    Also such a suggestion takes straight back to square 1, debating the construct of the EU.

    Focusing on the policies which affect our citizens is the way for activists and politicans to make the EU relevant to voters.

  • Dick Turpin

    What does the European Parliament actually do??

  • http://twitter.com/campaigner Dan Fox

    Yep. It’s true to say that the average MEP has more influence over the legislation that comes before them, than a national backbencher does. The roles of rapporteur or draftsman are arguably more akin to that of junior ministers.