In his first statement as Prime Minister on the steps of No10 Downing Street, David Cameron said that “One of the tasks that we clearly have is to rebuild trust in our political system… yes, it’s about making sure people are in control and that the politicians are always their servants and never their masters.”
One key promise in the Coalition Agreement to achieve this was to introduce a power of recall, allowing voters to get rid of sitting MPs and force by-elections where they feel they have been let down.
The Government published a draft Recall Bill in December last year, and invited a Committee of MPs to scrutinise it. At first, it appeared to be one of those rare things; a political promise kept. However the Government’s initial proposals didn’t merely fall short of genuine recall; they weren’t in any meaningful sense recall at all. For one thing, the Government proposals would give a committee of MPs rather than constituents the power to trigger a recall. Instead of handing power down, it hands it up.
The Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee published its report shortly before the Summer recess, and its verdict is damning: “We fear that the restricted form of recall proposed could even reduce confidence by creating expectations that are not fulfilled… we recommend that the Government abandon its plans to introduce a power of recall.”
The Committee is right to call for the abandonment of the current Recall Bill: it is flawed in every conceivable sense. Under current proposals, the Government will have created an illusion that people will have a say in recalling their elected representative while ensuring that it can never happen in practice.
However, the MPs are wrong to recommend dropping the policy itself. Recall was not only a firm promise made by all Party leaders before the election, and again in the Coalition agreement, it is in and of itself a crucially important step towards rebuilding trust between people and power. Indeed, unlike AV or the dog’s dinner that has become Lords reform, it is the one reform that will actually empower voters, and measurably so.
True Recall, as practiced in more than 20 US states, parts of Canada, some South American Countries and elsewhere, is a simple 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.
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, that would all change. People could 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.
It is hard to imagine who will welcome the Government’s current proposals. They will bitterly disappoint voters, and good MPs (if they’re paying attention) should also be alarmed. 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 could be perverse and unfair outcomes.
In short, if the Committee believes an MP qualifies for recall, that MP is effectively finished, because that decision immediately triggers a petition that only 10% of voters have to sign. There is then a by-election where they cannot fight the basis of their recall; they must fight against other parties in the broader national context. This gives real power to the authorities to throw inconvenient MPs to the wolves, as it could be very difficult for even a good MP to survive such a process.
But more practically, how will the committee of MPs determine if an MP has engaged in ‘serious wrongdoing’? Other than by reference to a very limited code of conduct, it is very hard to define; a point already made by John Lyon, The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. The bottom line is that none of the extreme problems I described earlier would qualify an MP for recall.
The only fixed recall ‘trigger’ that the Government has laid out relates to prison, and even this is problematic. 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 believed so.
True Recall is about democracy, and democracy is about trusting people. Fear of the ‘mob’ is fear of democracy itself, and where Recall happens, as it does in many US states, and countless other countries, 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.
In other countries, recall is rarely successful. In California for instance, where there are no pre-conditions, and where the petition threshold is just 12%, there has been only one successful Recall since 1911, despite 32 attempts. That resulted in the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger. In reality, an MP would only be booted out if their political capital is low.
We must now await the Government’s response to the Select Committee’s report. If the Bill is altered and removes the ‘middle men’ of MPs, and hands power directly and unconditionally to voters, then the Deputy Prime Minister, in whose remit this falls, will have performed a hugely valuable role. If the proposals are merely tweaked, or even dropped altogether, then it will be for voters everywhere to punish the Government for breaking its word.