Leaving aside the importance of voting in the first place – that around the world people have died to have the right to be part of a democracy – there are salient reasons for going to the ballot box in the elections to the European Parliament on May 22.
For competitive types, if voting were a sport, it is worth noting that the UK has always languished near the bottom of the European league table, even as the EU has grown to 28 member states. In 2009, turnout at the European elections in Britain was a lowly 34.7%, leaving us well below average and lagging behind Germany, France, Italy and Ireland among many others.
Leaving national pride aside, the importance of these elections can be put even more starkly.
The European Parliament (EP) is the only directly elected body in the whole EU set-up and it is the job of MEPs to scrutinise and amend the draft directives that the (unelected) European Commission in Brussels puts forward.
These directives are pan-European and most of them, once ratified by the EP, must be implemented into UK law. In the past, EU proposals have been drawn up on issues that affect every aspect of our lives and businesses. Examples include working hours, pensions, medicines, energy efficiency, health and safety, exports – even national flood risk management plans.
So if you don’t use this once-in-every-five-years chance to decide who represents you at these negotiations, then you can’t really complain.
The new batch of 751 MEPs elected this month will play a key role in deciding the next President of the European Commission. For the first time, the major party groupings represented in the EP will put forward candidates for the role of EU “chief executive”, with debates and campaigns run across member states. Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, alongside European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and foreign policy chief Baroness Catherine Ashton are all ending five-year terms – and who will succeed them is far from clear.
Some people argue that voting in the EP elections is fairer than the first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all, political fights at UK general elections, because it is run under a form of proportional representation. No one “wins” the election and there are no government or opposition benches as there are at Westminster.
The parties and independents that we vote for will, however, join their favoured political grouping, made up of like-minded parties from other member states, in the EP’s horseshoe-shaped chamber. The real challenge will be which major group can form a majority, as the winning coalition(s) in 2014 will determine both the work of the Parliament as EU legislator and will play a key role in determining the new Commission President.
The whole of the UK is divided into 12 super constituencies that send 73 British MEPs to Brussels. Under the “party list” system for the European elections you put your cross on the ballot paper next to one party, rather than voting for a particular individual. The candidates are listed as a group (the party list) next to the party’s logo, but the number of them who are actually elected depends on the proportion of votes their party receives as a whole in the particular region. Those highest on their party’s list stand the best chance of being elected.
Rye is part of the South East England region, which gets a total of 10 MEPs. Currently the Conservatives have five (including one who defected from UKIP), Liberal Democrats have two, Labour has one, UKIP has one, and the Green party has one.
So whether it is in honour of those who died for the right to vote, a rejection of current political apathy, or just the chance to send a message to our legislators, there are plenty of good reasons for getting out to your local ballot box on May 22.
David Cracknell is a former Political Editor of The Sunday Times and now runs a media relations consultancy