Leading article: Policy counts, not pique

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The Independent Online

This is utterly ridiculous, we know. But bear with us. Let us pretend, for a moment, that the European Parliament elections on Thursday are about the future of Europe. Let us put aside wanting to "send a message" to Gordon Brown or to Westminster politicians generally. Put aside moats and Tudor beams, floating duck houses and flipping second homes. Put aside, even, domestic politics – put aside Labour's proposal to bring in a 50p tax rate for high earners or the Conservative plan to cut inheritance tax for millionaires.

The Prime Minister invited us last week to cast a vote for Strasbourg on the basis of his handling of the global financial crisis and £60 for British pensioners. David Cameron used his first election broadcast to advertise his assertiveness with his own MPs and their expenses. Even Nick Clegg, the self-avowedly most pro-European leader, used the Liberal Democrat broadcast to say, "I wanted to say something that hasn't been said before," before going on to say roughly the same things that Mr Cameron said.

Ignore them. Read the party manifestos instead. Inform yourself about the powers of the European Parliament. And then decide.

The opinion polls suggest that many people intend to punish the Westminster parties by voting for parties that are not represented in the House of Commons. In one survey last week, the UK Independence Party even overtook Labour. This is, to put it politely, a paradox. Members of the European Parliament are hardly ascetics when it comes to the perks of public life. And some of UKIP's representatives have been exceptional in their generosity towards themselves.

That said, there is a democratic case for UKIP, in that it stands for a policy of Britain's withdrawal from the EU, which, however much this newspaper disagrees with it, is widely held. If people vote UKIP, though, it should be because they want Britain to have the same status as Norway or Switzerland, dominated by the rules of the EU but without a say in their making, and not because they are angry about MPs' expenses.

Furthermore, a vote for UKIP is preferable to one for the British National Party, a party that has racism written into its constitution. The fact that the BNP might win a seat is not, however, an argument against proportional representation – a suddenly fashionable topic of political debate. PR is not the answer to the abuse of expenses, as Lord Adonis observes today, with all the authority of his mentor, Roy Jenkins, who reported on the issue a decade ago. But PR does allow a wider range of democratic expression, although this week's particular system of closed lists, in which voters are unable to express a preference between candidates of the same party, is far from ideal.

One other party that might benefit from a desire for a new politics, and which would deserve to do so, is the Green Party. Under Caroline Lucas, its new leader (new in the sense that the party now has a leader, which it refused to have before), it has moved away from its fundamentalist anti-EU past – it used to regard the EU as an anti-green capitalist conspiracy – and now favours positive engagement.

The party that does not deserve to benefit from the voters taking the elections seriously, however, is the Conservative Party. David Cameron ought still to be paying the price for the Faustian pact that he made with the Tory Eurosceptics in order to secure the leadership three and a half years ago. He promised then to pull the party out of the main centre-right grouping in the European Parliament. Now, finally, after Thursday's elections, he is actually going to do it. When challenged about who the Tories' new partners will be, he names the Czech Civic Democrats. They are the most respectable of the mere handful of possible partners. But who else is there? Yesterday, Mr Cameron met the leaders of the Polish Law and Justice party that is hostile to equal rights for gay people. This is not grown-up politics.

Whatever else might be said about the two main pro-European parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, their engagement with the Strasbourg Parliament is the mature politics of co-operation and compromise. They offer a meaningful choice of degrees of enthusiasm, with the Liberal Democrats having long been the most pro-European of the main parties.

The Independent on Sunday is never so crude as to advise its readers how to vote. But on this occasion we urge our readers (a) to vote, and (b) to make their decision not on the basis of Westminster MPs' expenses but what they think is right for the future of Britain's relationship with the rest of Europe.