Well, my last blog post was popular, wasn’t it? Presentation of some 2016 Welsh Election Study (WES) findings on levels of name recognition for our different elected politicians attracted lots of attention. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, particular notice was paid to the dismal results for Wales’ MEPs; when survey respondents were presented with a list, which included both actual MEPs and several plausible but false names, the second most commonly-selected one was the fictitious politician ‘Elwyn Davies’.
Inevitably, many people have seen an amusing side to these findings. That has been reflected in the media coverage of the results; politicians also joined in the fun, tweeting about having meetings with Elwyn Davies. Plenty of others joined in the amusement online – at least three rival ‘Elwyn Davies MEP’ Twitter accounts were set up.
I’m always happy to join in or appreciate a good joke. But there is also a serious side to this story. I like to be a cheery person, but I haven’t dedicated a decade and more of my life to researching elections and public attitudes in Wales simply to have some amusing things to Tweet about. The fundamental purpose of the 2016 Welsh Election Study, and the much broader body of research that the study is a part of, is to find out important things about how democracy functions here. And the findings that I published last week do, I think, have some rather serious implications. I’ll briefly discuss two of them.
One thing which our findings about MEPs point to, I think, is the failure of a model of parliamentary representation in the European Union. This is something to which, quite a few years ago, I devoted a substantial amount of time to thinking about; some of my thoughts were included in a book I published with my friend and colleague Prof David Farrell in 2007. Put very simply, one response to the apparent ‘democratic deficit’ or ‘legitimacy crisis’ which some people began to diagnose in the EU from the 1980s onwards was to have the European Parliament (EP) be elected and then given substantial powers. The basic idea was that giving the EU’s directly-elected institution a much greater voice in the politics of the EU would bridge any gap between the Union and its peoples. People would start to take the EP and its elections much more seriously, and feel that through these elections, and their elected representatives, they had a real chance to influence the EU.
There was a time, I think, when this idea looked plausible. Elected democratic parliaments are a key democratic institution in most political systems, so why should they not be in the EU? But there is pretty much no evidence that this strategy actually works. The EP has been given really substantial powers in the EU over the last two or three decades. But has that helped, in any way, make people feel more connected to the EU, or feel that they have more of a voice in it? There is little or no evidence that this is so. Indeed, in the last decade or so, European elections actually appear to have become a means of the EU facilitating its own downfall. Partly because EP elections do not produce any clear consequences, many voters treat them as a ‘free hit’; those who have bothered to vote have increasingly supported anti-EU or protest parties. Those parties, after winning seats in the EP, have used the financial resources thereby gained to assist their further development.
To say all this is not, in any way, to decry the very good work that many MEPs do. I used to spend a lot of time talking to MEPs and their staff, and shadowing their work around Brussels (and, less often, Strasbourg) and their domestic political bases. Most MEPs work very hard, and plenty of them could point to real achievements in influencing EU policy and legislation. But I don’t think that detracts from the point that, in terms of the ambitions that many had for it as a democratic bridge between the people and the EU, the European Parliament is essentially a failing institution. Our findings in WES were just one tiny illustration of that much broader point.
But there is a second failure that I think our results last week pointed towards. If people are not at all well informed about the work – or even the names – of their MEPs then whose fault is that? Some of it may be down to MEPs; to some extent one might even blame the people themselves. But I think our news media must also take some responsibility. Have they really made a sufficiently serious effort, over a long period of time, to inform the public properly about the work of the EP, and of their own representatives within it? Some more thoughtful journalists I speak to would freely acknowledge that the answer to that question is a definite ‘no’. (Some of my younger colleagues in the Wales Governance Centre have some further thoughts on this issue, here).
I can’t say that without also acknowledging the many difficulties that I know most political journalists now work under. Fewer and fewer of them seem to be expected to cover more and more ground, over multiple platforms. There is little time for them to do serious investigative work, and in some media organisations their performance is apparently monitored through tracking the number of online ‘clicks’ that their stories attract. In that context, one can well understand many journalists not spending substantial time covering worthy, but probably not very ‘sexy’, stories about the work of MEPs.
But if we are to have a remotely well-informed public participating in democratic politics then people have to get their information from somewhere. Of course there are some media organisations that have little interest in this – and particularly in relation to the EU. Several UK newspapers spent years, even decades, prior to the June referendum actively propagating an absurd caricature of the EU. It is also true that social media and other technological developments do perhaps offer some mechanisms for politicians to connect more directly with the public – although few politicos have yet found a way to do so truly effectively. But it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that our current media environment creates powerful incentives for MEPs, and perhaps other politicians too, to avoid serious and unglamorous work and instead to go headline chasing. To some extent this has probably long been true. But it certainly appears to be more true now than ever. And I think that should trouble all of us.