My most disconcerting experience in my time as a Member of the European Parliament occurred a couple of years back as I sat in a Newcastle barber’s chair. Most politicians are hard-wired to identify differences with the opposition and to work to exploit them to electoral advantage, it’s the way we do politics here in the UK.
Consequently to be told by Barry the barber, “I’ve some bad news for you Paul, you’ve got something in common with Nigel Farage”, set alarm bells ringing in my head.
As a passionate Remainer what on earth could I possibly have in common with a Brexiteer?
Westminster politics is so adversarial that the Chamber of the House of Commons was designed so that two sword lengths was built into the fabric of the building as a safe separation distance between the government and opposition benches.
Think of the packed benches of the Commons at Prime Minister’s questions. Both government and opposition benches are in a state of hyper awareness as all their senses are finely tuned to detect even the faintest sliver of weakness in their opponents policy positions or lines of argument.
Some would argue that this constant search for weakness, for difference, is central to a vibrant working democracy.
However, in the European Parliament (EP) we do things differently. The first big difference is that no one has ever had a majority in the EP because there are several political groups in place (8 at the moment). MEPs are elected on a Proportional Representation voting system and not a First Past the Post , ‘winner takes all’, system as happens at Westminster. Hence smaller parties are able to gain more seats (for example there are several Green UK MEPs when there is only one Green MP).
Currently the largest group in the EP is the European People’s Party (EPP, mainstream conservatives - think Angela Merkel, but without the UK conservative MEPs). It has 218 members which is well short of the 356 needed for a majority. The Socialist Group, (S&D) of which I am a member, is next with 186 members. The remaining 6 groups represent the full range of political opinion including Liberals, Greens, and the far right.
As a consequence a political group in the EP can achieve nothing by way of legislation unless it works with other political groups to achieve a majority. This is a fundamental difference with Westminster.
The second major difference flows from the first. Instead of facing each other, House of Commons style, we MEPs sit in a hemi-cycle facing the Chair. Each political group sits in a configuration rather like a slice of cake. From where the speaker sits and working round, the parties of the left sit on the left, for example the Greek socialists Syriza, through the Socialist centre left, the EPP centre right, and finally round to UKIP on the far right with the fascists behind them. Winning votes in the EP usually sees a majority of votes clustering around one of the two main political groups.
When an MEP is allocated a piece of legislation to work on, as I have been, the default mind-set is not therefore adversarial, it's consensus; which political groupings might I be able to work with to build a majority to get this passed into law?
With all political groups potentially being allies (with the permanent exception of UKIP and the fascists who are there to destroy the EP) the day to day ways of working are very amicable. It’s self-defeating to have a massive political row that creates bad blood on an issue today when tomorrow you want the person you just argued with to support you.
Of the two approaches, Westminster or the European Parliament, I think I know which most voters would prefer, although the chances of Westminster being open to learning anything from Brussels are probably pretty low! A consensus approach might be just what is needed to make headway in our current political times.
Oh, and that comment from Barry the barber? It turns out that Farage, who was a customer the week before prior to speaking at the Sage, has the same kind of hair as me.