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PH Opinion

PH Opinion


Views and comment from Westminster

Zac Goldsmith: True Recall

Writing exclusively for PoliticsHome, Zac Goldsmith explains why the Government's proposals for recalling MPs fall short.

In the wake of the expenses scandal, the three main Parties went into overdrive to show they were best placed to clean up politics. The one valuable promise they all made was to introduce a Recall mechanism into British politics.

Then in December, the Government produced its draft Recall Bill. It looked like a promise kept. However, the small print tells a different story: the Government’s proposals don’t merely fall short of genuine Recall; they aren’t in any meaningful sense Recall at all.

True Recall, as practiced in more than 20 US states, parts of Canada, some South American Countries and elsewhere, is a straightforward mechanism. It allows voters to rid themselves of unwanted representatives at any time. If enough people sign a petition (somewhere in the region of 20%), a Recall ‘referendum’ is held, and people are asked simply if they want their representative to be recalled. If more than half say yes, a by-election is triggered.

Its beauty is its simplicity, and as a mechanism to restore faith in politics, it is second to none, and needed.

It is extraordinary that under today’s rules, if an MP were to ignore their voters from the day of the election, if they were to systematically break every promise they made, or disappear on holiday for three years, or even switch to an extremist Party, there is literally nothing their voters could do about it until the next General Election.

Even then the choice is limited, because it would require people to vote for a different Party, and in many parts of the country, people are only comfortable voting for their traditional Party. Under Recall, people can sack their MP at any time, and replace them with someone from the same Party. You could still have seats that are ‘safe’ for a Party, but MPs would always be kept on their toes.

Perhaps even more importantly, Recall would change the dynamic in Parliament. Because the greater pressure on an MP (after the election) is from the hierarchy of the Party they belong to, and not voters, they are unlikely to perform their priority task: holding the Executive to account. Genuine Recall would, at a stroke, remind all MPs that the only 3-line whip that counts is the one imposed by their constituents. It would encourage far greater independence in Parliament.

Unfortunately the Government’s ‘Recall’ plans are seriously flawed. Perversely, they will hand power up to a Parliamentary committee, not down to voters. Under the plans, once someone complains about an MP (not necessarily a constituent), the Committee on Standards and Privileges must decide if they have engaged in ‘serious wrongdoing’ and qualify to be recalled.

The problem with this is that it is impossible to define ‘serious wrongdoing’. This point has been made by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, John Lyon, who said he “would not expect that it would be necessary or desirable to seek to define ‘serious wrongdoing’, since so much would depend on the circumstances of each case.” None of the problems I described above would qualify an MP for recall, and it is highly likely that Recall would only apply to MPs who break the thin code of conduct we all sign, and which relates to registering interests and so on.

The only fixed condition set in the proposed Bill relates to prison. If an MP is sent to jail, they immediately qualify for Recall. But even this is problematic. For instance, there have been times where MPs have taken a moral stand against Government policy, and been jailed. Terry Fields for instance refused to pay the Poll tax in 1991. He was jailed for 60 days and became a hero. Should he have been recalled? Only, in my view, if his constituents wanted him to be.

Only they can ever know if their MP is doing a good job. There will be some MPs who look at the draft and breath a sigh of relief that it isn’t really Recall at all; no matter what they do, they are insulated from the ‘mob’ at least until the next General Election. But they would be wrong to seek comfort in these proposals because although they do not empower voters, they do empower their Party hierarchies, and create huge scope for abuse.

Here’s the process; once the narrow Committee has qualified an MP for Recall, the petition begins, and requires only 10% of voters to sign it. Given that the MP will effectively have been deemed guilty by Parliament, that threshold will pose little challenge. The MP then faces an immediate by-election where they must fight in the context of national issues and where they are dependent on their Party’s fortunes. Unlike in true Recall, where MPs face a simple referendum on their job, under the Government’s plans, they have no chance to persuade voters that the Recall is unwarranted. This gives real power to the authorities to throw inconvenient MPs to the wolves for spurious reasons.

It is hard to imagine who will welcome the Government’s proposals. They will bitterly disappoint voters, who have been led to believe, wrongly, they will be able to get rid of hopeless MPs. And nor will it protect good MPs. By handing power upwards to a jury of Whip- dominated MPs, rather than to a jury of 80,000 or so un-corruptible constituents, there will be perverse and unfair outcomes.

Recall is about democracy, and democracy is about trusting people. Fear of the ‘mob’ is fear of democracy itself, and where Recall happens, there is no evidence of abuse, and no reason to fear vexatious campaigns. Consider what happened in Winchester in 1997, when an attempt was made by the Tories to trigger a judicially sanctioned Recall election because they felt that they had lost, unfairly, by two votes. They went on to lose that election by more than 20,000 votes. The ‘mob’ don’t like time-wasters, and they reward fair play.

The Bill is only at draft stage, and will be altered. If the revised proposals remove the ‘middle men’ of MPs, and hand power directly and unconditionally to voters, then the Government will have performed a hugely valuable role. However if the proposals are only tweaked, then they must be opposed, and amended.

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