Ignorance is risk
The Guardian - 12 December 2003
British voters know the least about the European parliament so will they turn out and vote for representatives they have never heard of? Ros Taylor finds out
Scores of interested parties turned out at a rainy Centrepoint in London today to mull over one of the toughest tasks in British politics. They weren't talking about education, they weren't discussing health (or, at least, not much), and they most definitely weren't debating the euro or the EU constitution. They were wondering how to persuade the electorate to vote at all in next year's European elections.
Turnout in European elections has always been poor. Between 1979 and 1994 it hovered around a third of all UK voters. In 1999 it fell away to 24%, and would have been even lower had the Northern Irish not turned out in force. Proportional representation appears to have confused rather than encouraged voters, and not everyone thinks that holding both the local and European elections on June 10 will improve matters. Several delegates at Get the Vote Out!, organised by the Institute for Citizenship, feared the local and national agenda would smother European issues. Others worried about the implications of the first big experiment in postal voting. What if Royal Mail workers walked out again?
Few were under any illusions about the scale of the task. "The UK attitude towards Europe is at best indifferent and at worst hostile," Labour MEP Mary Honeyball said, to nods of assent from the audience. "I'm becoming more and more convinced that coverage in the media, particularly television, is crucial to how people decide whether to vote."
Dermot Scott, the director of the UK office of the European parliament, said British voters know less about the institution than any other EU country. "And the paradox is," he added, "that they would like to absorb it intravenously. They want it drip-fed at birth." Hour-long documentaries in the run-up to the election would not work, he said. The parliament is taking the conventional PR route: Weber Shandwick has been hired to organise more than 60 local events and galvanise local journalists into action. Email and web campaigns will try to mobilise the young and apathetic. A national helpline will attempt to answer voters' burning questions about the workings of the Europarl and the mechanics of voting.
"We will be concentrating," Scott told the audience, "on issues, not process. No one wants to know about the codicil. They want to know how it will affect them." That meant concentrating on the policy areas over which the EU has significant jurisdiction: passengers bumped off flights, food labelling, genetic modification, funding for stem cell research, and the impact the financial services directive would have on the City.
Frustratingly, the very themes that most engage voters - Iraq, the euro, the constitution and to a lesser extent the common agricultural policy - are off-limits. Trapped between what MEPs call "high politics" and local issues, the campaign risks making the European parliament seem little more than a consumer law executive - a difficulty the Lib Dem baroness Sarah Lumford hinted at when she spoke of its role in making life "safer and more comfortable" for Europeans. "We don't seem to benefit from the high politics," complained Mary Honeyball.
That won't, of course, bother voters who want to use their EP vote to express a view on them - or candidates exploiting that fact. Since his expulsion from the Labour party over his conduct during the war, MP George Galloway has said he intends to stand "Unity Coalition" candidates in every European parliament seat in England and Wales. The Coalition says it will run on a primarily anti-war, anti-euro and anti-foundation hospitals ticket.
Jean Lambert, London's Green MEP, warned that the British National party would seize on the opportunity to exploit a low turnout. "All of us who believe in mainstream politics must get out the vote," agreed Conservative MEP Charles Tannock, who - tongue slightly in cheek - suggested voters who turned up at polling stations should receive a £10 tax credit.
Concentrating on issues rather than process has its risks. A small proportion of voters are not even aware of the European parliament's existence. ("How do we get the vote out when you have people who don't actually realise there is something to vote for?" asked Lambert.) Many more do not understand the EP electoral system and assume an MEP is elected by the same method as their local MP. Most of the MEPs present said they wanted the public to know more about what they did on a day-to-day basis, but that local papers weren't interested.
There is also some evidence to suggest that voters who have strong views about the institution are more likely to vote for it. But few do, Ben Marshall of the Electoral Commission told the gathering.
Ironically, it could prove to be Romano Prodi's controversial presidency of the European commission which jerks a few of the electorate out of their torpor: "For the first time ever," Tannock pointed out, "we [MEPs] will actually have a say in who will be the new president of the European commission."
One thing was for certain: talking about the problem wasn't going to be enough. Marshall warned the delegates that apathy bred apathy: it was a "self-fulfilling prophecy." The more the media "banged on" about a low turnout, the fewer people bothered to vote.