This is the key finding of the first study by researchers at the Universities of Manchester and Aberyswyth into the effects of the changed voting system introduced in the 1999 European elections. The Economic and Social Research Council funded the research.
Elections to the European Parliament are now fought under a 'party list' system where each party presents the voters with a ranked list of candidates for each constituency. The number of seats the party gains is directly related to the proportion of votes their party receives.
"The introduction of proportional representation had substantial and immediate effects on who was elected," says Prof David Farrell, the report's co-author. "The British contingent became more proportional in party terms and the number of parties represented rose from four to seven. However, there are also indications that with substantially larger Euro-constituencies, MEPs now place less importance on representing individual voters and more importance on representing their party."
The researchers found that British MEPs are still more likely to have regular contact with their electorate than many of their European counterparts. But almost half of the MEPs interviewed regarded constituency representation is a fairly minor part of their job.
The British contingent is likely to be reduced from its current 84 MEPs when the European Parliament includes representatives from its newest members in Eastern and Central Europe. "As that happens, British MEPs will be spreading themselves even thinner," adds Prof Farrell. "And that means they are even less likely to regard themselves as constituency representatives."
With larger constituencies, MEPs have also become less visible to their voters. As a result, they get less overall correspondence than before, even though they receive more emails. And only 44 out of 84 MEPs had their own website in early 2002, when the research was conducted, with just 19 giving voters the chance to email them from the site. Four sites even failed to provide an address for the MEP's constituency office.
The change to PR has had other effects, too. Co-operation across parties is common within the Parliament on regional or specialist issues, but this is placed under great strain when MEPs are fighting for re-selection. Being placed high up their party's list is at a premium and the need to appeal to ordinary members (who now select the lists in three main parties) encourages greater partisanship.
Nearly three fifths of MEPs said that they saw themselves as being in parliament to represent their political party. Dr Roger Scully, the report's co-author adds: "MEPs increasingly see themselves as representatives of their party and their party's supporters within the region, rather than representing the whole regional electorate. Given that a typical region will now have MEPs from several parties, this is perhaps not surprising. But it means that they spend a lot of their time communicating within their party rather than to the voters."
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats gave their party members considerable say over the selection and ranking of candidates in 1999. Labour changed its rules in 2002 for the 2004 elections and beyond.
"Overall, it would seem that the greater proportionality in the electoral system for the European Parliament has led to MEPs being less visible to their voters and a reduced role for constituency work," concludes Prof Farrell. "Turnout was just 23% in 1999 and it remains to be seen whether this invisibility leads to an even lower turnout in 2004."
For further information:
Contact Prof David Farrell on 0161 275 4902 or 07958 321411 or email firstname.lastname@example.org; or Dr Roger Scully on 01970 622689 or email email@example.com;
Or Iain Stewart, Lesley Lilley or Anna Hinds at the ESRC Press Office on 01793 413032/413119/413122
NOTES TO EDITORS
1. The study "Electoral Reform, Parliamentary Representation and the British MEP" was conducted by Prof David Farrell at the Department of Government, University of Manchester and Dr Roger Scully of the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Wales, Aberyswyth. The study is part of the work of the European Parliament Research Group.
2. The researchers interviewed 61 MEPs (73 per cent of the total) for this study.
3. The study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £76 million every year in social science and at any time is supporting some 2,000 researchers in academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences to nurture the researchers of tomorrow. More at http://www.