I'm writing this article on May 25th, one year to the day from the announcement of the election result, when I was elected as UKIP's first ever North East Member of the European Parliament. Given the criticism from many people about UKIP's work in the European Parliament, I thought I'd write about what I actually do.
When UKIP is wrong, I'm not afraid to speak out - as this article shows. Far from the media suggestion that UKIP clamps down on anyone who dares to speak out of turn, I've had nothing but praise for that article from within the party. No dressing down from the boss, no angry phone calls from the press office. I've voted against the party line in the European Parliament quite often - and never once been in trouble with the 'whips' for doing so. UKIP respects my freedom of conscience to vote as I see fit.
I started as I intend to go on. My term of office started on July 1st, and just days later my name was chosen at random to scrutinise the election for the Commission President. Speaking in front of the whole Parliament, I refused to scrutinise the election: we had just one candidate to choose from, and the election was by secret ballot! How, I asked, could it be right that our constituents couldn't know how we voted? I refused to take part in the organisation of such an undemocratic process.
When the European Parliament breaks its own rules, as this video shows, I'm not afraid to speak out either. In that case, the Parliament had disabled the red button so that we could not vote 'no'. Likewise, when the Parliament has a double standard or debate is cancelled I point that out too.
Funnily enough, with my first proper speech in the European Parliament on youth unemployment I joined a very exclusive club: my speech was actually praised by an EU Commissioner. I'd pointed out that countries should learn from each other: there are things that we can learn for example from Germany, where there is no stigma attached to a vocational route in education. Of course, I had also said that it's more efficient for countries to fund employment programmes themselves rather than send money to the EU, only to request it back. Nevertheless, a UKIP MEP's speech was praised by an EU Commissioner. I jokingly offered myself for disciplinary action to our Chief Whip, who was equally bemused.
Contrary to the accusations made by our opponents, I've turned up. My voting record is hovering between 97% and 98%; I wish it were 100% and - health permitting - that's my target for next year. But still, it's much higher than most parties' records at Westminster - which, I'll remind you, is actually in this country. The journey to Strasbourg is a 1,500-mile round trip and Brussels 1,000.
Recently I've taken to live tweeting the votes in the European Parliament. I think the Parliament is too remote from people in the UK, and things which would be a scandal if they occurred at Westminster pass people in Britain by when they happen in Strasbourg. Last week, President Schulz was asked whether the Parliament might hear a few words from the candidates in an internal election; his response was classic: "When we have an election, it is without debate". Hopefully by live tweeting the votes, I can show people just how far the European Parliament falls of modern standards of democracy.
I don't accept hospitality from lobbyists. The champagne and refreshments are free-flowing and available almost every day of the week in Brussels. There are more lobbyists in Brussels than in Washington DC. Sadly, that means that big business is able to mould legislation to give it a competitive advantage over small business. Big business doesn't mind excessive regulation because it has the infrastructure to cope; it knows perfectly well that such regulation will harm its smaller competitors. If you attend such events, how can you know that your vote hasn't subtly been influenced by the free champagne? For similar reasons, I don't take part in the regular foreign junkets organised by the European Parliament.
On the other hand, I'm always much happier to spend time speaking to local businesses and constituents, helping them where I can. We may yet win the fight against the appalling lack of foresight in the VATMOSS regulations, which came into force in January and has been putting small businesses which trade with Europe out of business. Hopefully it will at least be amended to fix the problem, if not repealed entirely.
I'm keen to submit amendments to lessen the impact of proposed EU legislation, but I'll be honest: it's taken time to understand the intricacies of the Committee system in Brussels - and the committees I'm on are related to finance anyway, rather than legislation. So whilst I have submitted some amendments, notably to save taxpayers' money in the EU budget (and watched whilst they were voted down), it's not something I've yet been doing on a daily basis.
On the other hand, I'm one of the few British MEPs to have had the opportunity to vote on TTIP (the controversial proposed EU-USA trade deal). Knowing that one of my colleagues would miss the meeting, I volunteered to attend to make sure that UKIP was represented when TTIP came before that committee. I voted against the possibility of NHS involvement in TTIP, and against the principle of private companies having the right to sue national governments over policy. Finally, given that the votes were negative I voted against TTIP altogether.
Meanwhile I'm trying to represent an area so geographically large that it can take up to 3 hours just to drive from one end of my constituency to the other! So in order to be as accessible as possible to my constituents, I've spoken at public meetings the length and breadth of the region, speaking and answering questions about my role as a member of the European Parliament. There's always a balance between doing the job in Brussels and Strasbourg - where I have some of the best records of any British MEP for speeches and Parliamentary questions - and getting back to the UK to feed back to constituents. Many of my Parliamentary questions take up causes on behalf of constituents.
The media side of my job is substantial, partly because a UKIP MEP tends to be something of a figurehead within that region and also partly because foreign TV channels are interested. So my national media appearances have included the Daily Politics, Newsbeat, Good Morning Britain, Radio 5 Live, the Today Programme, The World At One, BBC News, and many more. At a regional level, I've done Around the House, the Sunday Politics, ITV News and various other local radio stations. I have a regular column in a major regional newspaper, not forgetting of course to write here for the Huffington Post!
There's much more to the job behind the scenes of course - and of course, internal Party matters as well. The job is varied and fascinating, but absolutely exhausting. Regular foreign travel, hotel stays (comfortable or uncomfortable beds) and living out of a suitcase take their toll after a while. It's a frustration to see how democracy is subverted in the European Parliament, but a real privilege to be able to represent the people of the North East.Suggest a correction