One of the most persistent criticisms lobbed at the European Union is the accusation that it isn’t democratic. It is an argument that I, a directly elected Member of the European Parliament, find particularly tiresome. It’s reared its ugly head once more, especially as the referendum campaign is now in full swing. The EU is run by faceless bureaucrats, or so I’m told. As someone who fought long and hard to be elected by the people of the North East, it doesn’t quite ring true. I wonder sometimes if I imagined the long slog of an election campaign, of winning a place on a selection list and then a seat in a parliament.
The EU, in actual fact, is a democratic institution. There is an information deficit, not a democratic one. The European Parliament is directly elected by people from across Europe. It can amend and have final say on proposals from the European Commission. The Commission is the civil service of the EU and is led by Commissioners, who are nominated by the Governments of the Member States. The Council is made up of the heads of state from the Member States, and sets the direction and agenda for the EU. The Commission then proposes actions and legislation to carry out the direction, and the Parliament and the relevant Council of Ministers then have to approve or amend what the Commission suggests, which the Commission then implements.
But regardless, the point made is always this: that the EU, and the European Parliament in particular, is fundamentally less democratic than our system. Our Parliament, the mother of all parliaments, is an exemplary bastion of democracy which shines across the world. There’s just one problem with all of this: it’s not actually true.
Recently there was an election to the House of Lords, the appointed, and mostly unelected chamber. Only seven people got to stand in this election, and, even more shockingly, only three people got a vote. The candidates are two third barons, a fourth baron, a third viscount, a fourth earl, a seventh earl, and a 13th earl. The voters are Patrick, 10th earl of Glasgow, Raymond, third earl of Oxford and Asquith, and Dominic, sixth Baron Addington.
All are white, middle-aged, self-evidently aristocratic men, the exact demographic that politics obviously needs more of. To stand in this election, you had to fulfil two criteria: to have inherited a peerage from your father, and to be a member of the Liberal Democrats. Obviously, the number of people amongst the British public who fulfil these criteria is tiny, and the number of people who get a vote – the existing Lib Dem Lords – is even tinier.
The candidate who won was Viscount Thurso, but, may I suggest, this doesn’t much matter. (Which is not to suggest that the candidates do not have a diverse range of views: policy interests and life experience range from policing to the Baltic states to wildlife.) An election where the electorate is so small as to almost be negligible is a joke. Even one of the most famous rotten boroughs abolished under the Great Reform Act of 1832, Old Sarum, had eleven electors.
It has been argued by the son of the peer whose death triggered this election, human rights campaigner Lord Avery, that the best way to honour his father would be to not hold an election at all. Lord Avebury himself tabled an amendment which would have led to the elimination of hereditary positions after each peer’s death, but it was defeated. In the face of all this, how can it possibly be reasonable to be in glass houses but to throw so many stones?