UKIP and the Italian Five Star Movement have succeeded in forming a new Group in the European Parliament. All of these Groups must have a minimum of 7 countries represented and at least 25 MEPs. As of today, the Group has 7 countries and 48 MEPs - with the potential of more joining later. UKIP has 24 of those seats, and the Five Star Movement has 17. The leader of Italy's Five Star Movement, Beppe Grillo, has called it 'a great day for direct democracy'. Almost everything is hailed by politicians as 'a great day for democracy', but the word 'direct' is key.
In the UK, the concept of democracy is well known. Our fundamental freedoms date all the way back to Magna Carta, as even David Cameron admits (even if he didn't know what Magna Carta actually means, when asked on American television).
We're the country of 'innocent until proven guilty', the right to a fair trial, the right to trial by jury, freedom from unlawful imprisonment, the country that believes that justice should not only be done but seen to be done. Our Parliament is often called 'the mother of all Parliaments' because our model led the way in bringing democracy to many countries in Europe. We've got a good historical record (just like we were the country that led the way, through William Wilberforce, in abolishing the evil of slavery) in terms of democracy. It's time for the UK to lead the way once more. Beppe Grillo is on to something which I've campaigned for over many years: not just democracy, but direct democracy.
Back in 2002, I mentioned it in my first speech to a UKIP Conference. At the time I was one of just two young people in the room; this week, the membership of Young Independence (the Party's youth wing) passed 2,500 for the first time. The kind of democracy we have today might have suited a country centuries ago. The public couldn't vote on most issues themselves, so representatives were elected to go to London and take those decisions on their behalf. The right to vote was extended to more and more people, and we became a Parliamentary democracy.
But in the 21st century, with internet access freely available to the vast majority of the population, why shouldn't we have the right to determine issues - moral issues for example - which matter to us? Scotland has a forthcoming referendum on whether it should remain in the UK. Despite decades of lower turnout and voter apathy at elections, this debate gives the Scottish people a chance to vote on something which matters to them. Polls show that a small majority are likely to vote to keep Scotland as part of the United Kingdom. I hope that is the outcome, but it's a matter for the Scottish people to decide for themselves. There are public meetings up and down Scotland, families are debating the issue amongst themselves - and for the first time, a generation is sitting up and taking notice of their right to vote.
When the people have the right to decide such issues for ourselves, not relying on MPs in Westminster (who may be out of touch with our opinions), it sparks a new interest in politics. Many young people in particular feel disenfranchised under our current system. They care about political issues but they don't particularly care for political parties. Politicians of all colours lament "Why don't young people get more engaged with politics?". I say, let's give them the right to change things.
Direct democracy is the idea of allowing citizens to call a referendum on key issues. In previous UKIP manifestos, we've set the bar at 5% of the electorate. If 5% of the electorate sign a petition calling for a referendum on an issue of national importance, they should be able to force a binding referendum on Parliament. What, politicians aren't listening? Force them to listen! There would have to be safeguards built into law, of course. A petition victimising a minority for example, or one which is economically impossible, might well be struck out by a court of law before it ever made it to the ballot box.
It's often argued "But if you left it up to the people, they'd vote to bring back the death penalty". I'm not sure that's the case: those who might well call for a vicious murderer to be hanged out of a sense of anger, would think very carefully before actually casting such a vote at the ballot box. If it were true that it would bring back the death penalty, and I don't personally think that would be the outcome of such a referendum, so be it. In Scotland, I don't expect a vote for independence, but if it happens I have no right to enforce my view on the people of Scotland.
One of the reasons I oppose the European Union is for its lack of democracy. We're often asked in UKIP "We know what you're against. Tell us what you're for." Direct democracy, giving power back to the people, is a very good place to start. I'll talk about our other policies (no tax on minimum wage to help the poorest in our society for example) in the future.
UKIP stands for taking power away from the European Union, and even from Westminster, putting it back into the hands of the people. Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement recognises the power of the internet in giving people a greater say in how their country is run. In UKIP, we believe in being good neighbours with Europe not being governed by Europe. They're not empty words. Perhaps there is much we can learn from the Five Star Movement. One thing is for certain though. The new Group formed in the European Parliament will have democracy as a key theme.