Who does a politician represent? It’s a simple question but as with many such questions the answer is more complex. I’m one of three members of the European Parliament for the North East of England. A region that has 29 MPs and several hundred councillors all of whom have the job of representing their constituents in either a parliament or a council chamber.
Clearly at what you might call ‘the top level’ the politician represents everyone in their constituency or ward; voters, non-voters and children alike.
That said, politicians understandably feel an acute prompting to first and foremost represent those who voted for them, especially if they wish to be re-elected in the future.
However, most politicians stand for office under a party political flag so inevitably they owe an allegiance to the party that funded their campaign and provided the political structure to enable them to be elected. It is difficult, bordering on the impossible to be elected as a genuine independent especially as an MP, in part due to the large size of constituencies.
Not only do the political parties feel they have a call on ‘their’ representatives, so do the Party members who selected them to be their candidate in the first place and on whose behalf they walked the streets delivering leaflets on a cold, wet, windy day.
At the other end of the scale politicians represent themselves. Electors don’t want politicians without any views of their own!
In my case there are two further considerations. I am also one of twenty Labour MEPs from the UK who collectively form the European Parliamentary Labour Party (EPLP), a body that takes a view on issues in advance of votes in the Parliament. In turn, the EPLP sits in the wider Socialists and Democrats Group of the European Parliament, which numbers 190 MEPs from across all 28 member states.
So when my hand moves to press the ‘For’, ‘Against’ or ‘Abstain’ vote in a parliamentary voting session, my representative role – I hope you will agree – is somewhat complicated.
My experience of 35 years of active engagement in politics, including six years as a councillor, is that most representatives most of the time vote on party political lines and in this way I am no different - the vast majority of the time I vote in keeping with the Labour Party line.
Which brings me to Brexit. The North East constituency had the biggest leave vote in the UK at 58% and as such Jonathan Arnott, the region’s UKIP MEP, is well placed to represent these voters and their view in the European Parliament. Why? Well, to risk stating the obvious his personal view was leave, his party’s view was leave, the people who voted for him when he was elected were leave given UKIP’s raison d'être and in turn the region voted leave in the referendum.
I’m in a different position. My personal view is to remain in the EU, the Labour Party’s referendum position was to remain in the EU and I was selected to run for office by Labour Party members who are 65% pro remaining in the EU. Then this crucial piece of information: 56% of those who voted Labour in the 2017 general election in the North East of England had voted remain in the EU referendum. In fact all the regions and nations of the UK saw a majority of Labour voters in the 2017 general election having voted remain in the 2016 EU referendum.
For this reason as a Labour MEP I will continue to argue that the North East and the country would, on balance, be better off, more stable and peaceful staying in the EU, a position that my fellow Labour MEP Jude Kirton-Darling also supports. The final deal should at the very least keep us in the Single Market and Customs Union to ensure that jobs and investment, trade, rights, security, and our environment are protected.
So who does a politician represent? In today’s complex political climate the answer can never be a straightforward one and it will involve a great deal of compromise. But as a Labour representative of the North East in the European Parliament my votes will always be for the benefit of the many, not the few.
This column was originally published in The Journal newspaper on Wednesday, 17th of January.