kevin_peelKevin Peel reports from his European Election Campaign trip to Malta and Italy and returns with suggestions for party reform back home [originally published here: http://www.kevpeel.co.uk/lessons_from_the_med]

Huge crowds donned in red and blue. Flags waving, people chanting, a festival atmosphere in the air.

Not Manchester on derby day but political supporters at a typical village festival in Malta.

I took advantage of the usual Easter lull in campaigning at home to take a ‘break’ and support friends standing for the European Parliament for Labour’s sister parties in Malta and Italy. I wanted to do what I could to help deliver a centre left majority in the European Parliament in May, but I was also intrigued about how parties and campaigns are organised elsewhere in Europe and what we might learn.

In many ways politics in Malta is like football in the UK. It’s the national sport. People are tribal about their ‘team’, ‘matches’ (numerous TV debates) are watched religiously and politicians are treated like celebrities on the streets (although not paid quite the same salaries as footballers!)

In Malta, no one needs convincing about the importance of European elections. Being part of the world’s biggest trading bloc gives this small country with a population the size of Manchester an enhanced voice on the world stage. Maltese turnout for the European elections on 25th May is expected to be about 75% – 10% higher than UK General Election turnout in 2010. Turnout in the 2013 General Election in Malta – in whichthe Partit Laburista won a historic victory – was 94%, higher even than Australia where voting is compulsory.

What is the cause of such enthusiasm for and devotion to politics in Malta? “Politics is just what we do”, says Cyrus Engerer, one of 13 Labour candidates battling it out for one of Malta’s six seats in the European Parliament. “People see politicians every day on TV and in the street and they are much more accessible”, he explains. “If someone wants to meet a Minister, they meet the Minister. It’s easier because we’re a small country.”

Can we replicate this accessibility in the UK? I’m trying to imagine a UK Government Minister accepting every meeting request and replying personally to all correspondence and of course it would be impossible. But what else might we learn?

For a start, there is wall to wall political coverage on TV. In addition to the national broadcaster, the two main TV channels and radio stations are owned by the Labour Party and the Nationalist Party respectively.

Even the national broadcaster has at least three political debates a day. “You’d think people would be sick of it”, one Ministerial aide told me, “but last year TVM (the national broadcaster) cut their political programming and people complained!”

I asked if Malta’s electoral system – funnily enough introduced by us when the country was under British rule and touted as one of the most democratic in the world – plays a roll in the popularity and accessibility of politicians and the turnout in elections. “Most definitely”, says Maria Borg, who is working on Cyrus Engerer’s campaign. “Because people vote for individuals and many more people stand than there are seats, candidates have to work for every vote and be constantly out and visible in their communities – before and after the election if they want to be elected again.” A glance at Cyrus’ punishing campaign schedule proved this to be true. He is standing with 12 other candidates including 3 sitting MEPs, who have to go through the whole process at each election, as do MPs in national elections – and are routinely challenged. No automatic selections or ‘safe seats’ here.

I followed Cyrus around on the campaign trail for two days and I was astonished by the reaction he received from voters. Everywhere we went he received a warm reception. In one market he was practically mobbed as shoppers recognised him from TV and stopped to say hello and raise their issues. One woman led us to her house around the corner for a cup of tea and a discussion about the erosion of workers rights as airport security staff were transferred to G4S. The pile of business cards I was tasked to hand out quickly diminished.

It’s not just about more media coverage, there are more opportunities to engage with politics in Malta. The leader of the Labour Party and popular current Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, holds a rally every Sunday with MPs, MEPs and candidates. Every town and village has a Labour club and these are a meeting point for local members and supporters and a hotbed of activity. Every occasion is turned into an opportunity to show off your political colours. Both parties turn out huge crowds to march during the annual village festivals and most villages have two band clubs (forthe bands who play at celebrations) – each unofficially aligned along party lines.

I met with staff at Maltese Labour HQ who showed me their plan for the European election campaign. They had mapped out a series of meetings, rallies and debates every single night for 5 weeks covering every corner of the country. Compare this to our own lacklustre European election campaign. I was proudly shown some photos of a recent rally: “We have to hold them outdoors because we don’t have any venues big enough for the crowds”, boasted one party worker. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had a call from a party staffer asking me to get 10 members along to an event with some important minister because they can’t find enough real people…

With higher engagement comes higher membership – around 20% of Maltese people are paying members of one of the two main political parties.

While it would be impossible to replicate some of this at a national level in the UK – and perhaps even at a regional level – I can’t help but wonder if more innovation and greater organisational capacity in the party at a sub regional level would give us the resources and flexibility to have a go at bringing politics and politicians closer to people.

We can’t dismiss the situation in Malta as an anomaly in a small country. I left Malta and travelled to the Liguria region in the North West of Italy for my second international jaunt on the campaign trail. What can we learn from a country our own size?

Italy has a population of 60 million people and it’s fair to say has it’s share of political scandal of the sort which would make Jeffrey Archer blush. However interest in politics here is still high and politicians are well known figures (although admittedly not always necessarily for the right reasons).

It is widely accepted that the system of electing MPs in Italy is bonkers and new Democratic Party Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has promised to change it. However it is the European election system I came to find out more about. I joined my friend and local candidate for the European list, Brando Benifei, on the campaign trail in his home town of La Spezia to find out more.

“There is much greater awareness of elections here because people see the posters and billboards on every street corner”, Brando tells me. This is certainly true, I counted his face 7 times walking from the train station to our meeting point.

In some ways European candidates in Italy are selected like our own. Members are invited to apply and chosen by the regional board and then a party list is created. However there are important differences. The first is that the regional board is representative of the regional party, with delegates from every local association. Brando tells me he faced a vote of the 80 members of the PD’s Liguria regional congress in order to be selected. It makes it much harder to see the sort of stitch ups we saw with European selections in the UK this time around and leads to theselection of candidates genuinely chosen by members with a strong mandate.

Five candidates were selected from the Liguria region to join 15 candidates selected by regional congresses in three other regions which make up the multi-region constituency of the North West of Italy. That list of 20 includes sitting MEPs – all of whom have to go through the same re-selection process with new candidates and will be judged on their record in office.

With such a big region you might think that candidates would be completely remote from their electorate. However this is not the case. Italy’s voting system for European elections allows people to vote for the whole party list, but the order of that list is not pre-determined. Voters can – if they wish – vote for up to three individual candidates from the list. So in addition to casting your ballot for the Partito Democratico, for example, you could also choose to write in the names of the head of the list in your region, the most popular sitting MEP and your local candidate. It is these votes Brando is relying on.

“There are many strong candidates in my region”, he tells me. “About 20% of people will write names in addition to casting their ballot for theparty. Many will vote for the head of the list chosen by the party leader, some will then vote for a popular MEP or candidate they know or have heard of and then vote for their local candidate.”

It is having a broad range of candidates chosen at a sub regional level ensuring coverage of the whole region and strong local bases of support for each candidate which make the Italian system so interesting.

“In order to win I have to get thousands of people to write my name on the ballot paper”, says Brando. “Of course I will be seeking the most support from my home town and region and because I grew up here and because of the advertising and my campaigning, lots of people know who I am and recognise me in the street.” It creates a local feel to an otherwise remote campaign. And motivates 20 candidates to work as hard as they can – for themselves and the party, whose number of MEPs is determined by the vote share. And it works – turnout in 2009’s European elections in Italy was 65% – almost double that of the UK and on a par with our General Election turnout.

It is worth noting that the PD’s membership is about half a million – triple what I’m told our numbers have dwindled to since the initial bump in 2010.

There is a clear argument here both to look at how we organise as a party and how we as politicians and activists seek to engage people in thepolitical process, but also to look again at our electoral system for local, national and European elections. I’ve mentioned just two systems, but in reality there is a multitude of evidence to show that countries with more accountable and democratic electoral processes have higher turnout and greater participation in politics and political parties.

With more people likely to not vote than to vote in the UK on 22nd May and with the anti-politics party UKIP expected to come a close second, we can’t afford not to try.