This has all come about because of the rules that apply to British elections to the European Parliament. At election time (in practice, usually some months beforehand) the parties choose lists of candidates in a ranked order, generated by more-or-less open and transparent and possibly internally democratic processes. The general public has no say in this, as indeed is the case in most elections in countries where there is not a tradition of primaries. (Incidentally, I read that the Conservatives are no longer as enthusiastic about open primaries as once they were - a daft idea in the first place that I didn't realise had made it into the Coalition agreement.)
The voters come into it at election time, when they choose how many seats are allocated to each party, no doubt taking into account the names on the party lists of candidates as well as the party's policies and their feelings about the party's leader (who is probably not a candidate). If you get x seats, the top x candidates on your list are elected. (Usually x = 1.) In Great Britain, there is no option to choose among candidates on the list. Eight other EU countries have taken the same line as most of the UK, and use closed lists, some regional, some not; the other 18 all allow voters to choose not only the party but the candidate by one means or another. Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote system, as do the Irish Republic and Malta.(There is a useful summary in the end of the OSCE pre-report on the 2009 elections, pages 14-15.) The adoption of closed lists was a policy decision made by the then new Labour government in 1997-98, and the present Conservative/Lib Dem government shows no sign of changing it.
The question then is, how should vacancies be filled? The rather blunt instrument employed by UK legislation is to fix the list of candidates at the time of the election as the list of substitutes, and to then offer vacant seats to the remaining candidates in order, provided that the party leadership thinks that they are up to it. A seat may therefore be allocated based on low-preferences in an internal party selection held several years before, combined with the tolerance of the current party leader. This may not be wholly satisfactory in principle, but it is the method chosen by the then new Labour government in 1997-98, and again the present Conservative/Lib Dem government shows no sign of changing it.
There are other methods. Vacancies for seats in the UK Parliament are normally filled by by-elections. This was also the system used for the GB seats in the European Parliament for the twenty years that they were elected from single-member constituencies. There were six by-elections during this period, with every seat retained by the party that had won it at the previous full election, and turnout ranging from 28.5% (Midlands West, 1987) to 11.3% (Merseyside West, 1996). The evidence suggests that there is not a howling desire for direct participation in the filling of European Parliament vacancies. In any case, by-eections held under the current regional structure would cause distortion if a member of a small party were to die or resign, and their seat won in a by-election by a member of a larger party.
There is in fact another system for filling vacancies in proportional elections which currently works, and works well, within in the UK. In Northern Ireland (where the single transferable vote is used for everything except Westminster elections, because elections in Northern Ireland, unlike in England, have to be fair), elected members of the Assembly, local councillors and MEPs who resign or die are replaced by the nomination of the party on whose ticket they were originally elected. There is usually an internal party process, more-or-less open and transparent and possibly internally democratic. It is efficient and inexpensive, and preserves the wishes of the voters as expressed in the most recent election about the party affiliation of their representatives, even if the precise individual elected then is no longer available.
Other EU countries have different processes. Here in Belgium, we have open lists not only for candidates but for designated substitutes, so we get to rank the order in which people will get offered vacant seats. The political class here being fairly small in number (combined with the eminently sensible rule, separating the legislative and the executive branches, which bars government minsters from sitting in parliament - and we have a lot of governments) there is often a certain amount of musical chairs played after each election, which is sometimes not very pretty but tend to be conducted in public to general amusement. Other posibilities will no doubt spring to mind. The British system (meaning that used in England/Gibraltar, Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland) is not the only one imaginable, and it has the possibility to deliver unsatisfactory results.
There have been two cases of this in recent weeks. Roger Helmer, Conservative MEP for the East Midlands, announced last year that he intended to resign effective 1 January 2012; the next Tory on the list was his friend Rupert Matthews. But rumours began to spread that the party leadership might not approve Matthews, whose interests are eclectic, and Helmer withdrew his resignation (I suspect that technically he actually did nothing, and simply declined to tender the resignation as he had originally planned). And now we have had the case of Diana Wallis, who resigned this month as Lib Dem MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber, with consequent confusion as to whether Stewart Arnold would take the seat, as he was legally entitled to do under the rules. (There was some question as to whether Lib Dem members in the party selection process knew that he was the incumbent MEP's spouse, but my own impression both from canvassing them on behalf of another candidate at the time and from analysing the results is that those who voted were as aware of this as they wanted to be.) Basically, as long as the UK sticks to the current system for filling vacant seats in the European Parliament outside Northern Ireland, this is bound to happen again and again.
Some very silly things have been said about this affair. Top prize goes to Denis MacShane, the Labour MP for Rotherham, who grumbles that "I have never heard of this lady, never seen her, know nothing about what she stands for" - he cannot have been paying much attention during the 2010 Westminster campaign, when the Lib Dem candidate in his own constituency was one Rebecca Taylor. Today he proudly announced on Twitter that he had:
Just recorded Yorkshire TV on scandal of Nick Clegg imposing London consultancy/lobbbyist as Yorkshire MEPIt's difficult to know where to start pulling apart this little piece of mendacity. The suggestion is that Clegg plucked Taylor's name out of a hat and thrust her upon the local membership, rather as (dare I say it) the Labour Party sometimes does with candidates in safe seats which suddenly fall vacant before an election. In fact, once Arnold had declined to take the position, Clegg's choice was to do nothing and allow Taylor to become an MEP, or to act as no party leader has acted since 1999 and block her in order to avoid the outrage of Denis MacShane. I suppose there is a suggestion that Clegg may have leant on Arnold to step back for the sake of the party; knowing Arnold as I do, I think he is smart enough to have worked out the political calculus for himself, and I also take him at his word when he says that his wife matters more to him than the European Parliament.
MacShane of course was a member of the government that passed the silly rules in the first place, so has some cheek in complaining about them. (Likewise the Tory MPs who complain about the lack of a by-election, for reasons explained above.) Chris Davies, the Lib Dem MEP for the neighbouring North West of England constituency, has also not covered himself in glory by resigning in protest at a decision that had not in fact been made and in the end was not made. Davies' ire may be understandable, given the support he had rendered Wallis in her doomed bid to become President of the European Parliament; but to understand is not to approve.
The normally sane and sensible Mark Pack proposes that in the event of a vacancy, party activists should select from those originally nominated, re-ranking the remaining candidates on the list. The only advantage of this is that it could be put into effect by internal party rules without a change in the law. Otherwise, it risks failing because the number of candidates will be very few. As I reported previously, nine candidates were on the ballot for the six list spots in Yorkshire and the Humber last time round. Under Pack's proposal, members would now choose not between those nine, but between the remnants of the six who were chosen in 2008, one of whom has just resigned the seat, one of whom has just refused to take it, and one of whom I understand has since left the Lib Dems. I'm not sure that a new ranking of the remaining three candidates by party members is a terribly meaningful exercise of democracy. It would be much preferable to widen the pool, either by a list of registered substitutes as we have here in Belgium, or by simply allowing the party leader to approve whoever local party structures nominate, as is done in Northern Ireland. That would require a change in the law, of course, but it was a change that all Northern Ireland's political parties were able to agree to; perhaps they could bring their experience of consensus politics across the water where it is obviously needed.