Primaries and recall elections may be nice ideas, but they won’t transform British politics

3 June 2013

Say at least this for those twin gadflies Douglas Carswell MP and Daniel Hannan MEP, they are optimists in a political scene often dominated by a certain brand of dreary pessimism.  Their faith in the bracing refreshment of a reformed democracy is as palpable as it is touching. Their article in today’s Telegraph, repeating their long-pressed arguments for open primaries and recalling errant MPs.

Neither idea is without merit. Even so, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that neither measure would have quite the transformative impact Messrs Carswell and Hannan suggest.

They argue, for instance, that open primaries would put an end to safe seats. And they insist that introducing the power of recall would reduce the likelihood of parliamentary corruption. Neither of these assertions, however, is supported by any serious evidence. Again, that does not invalidate the ideas themselves but it does suggest the impact of their introduction is liable to be more limited than is sometimes claimed.

As always, the “read across” from the American experience to the United Kingdom should be be treated with some caution. Nevertheless, no-one who has any experience or knowledge of the US House of Representatives can credibly argue that open primaries (or recall) have produced the results Carswell and Hannan suggest would be experienced in the United Kingdom.

Indeed, the incumbency advantage in the US is, if anything, even more pronounced than it is in this country. Moreover and even allowing for the corrosive effect of gerrymandered Congressional districts, most of the time the impact of open primaries do is to make the real contest the primary, not the general election. Facilitating primary challenges to sitting MPs might make some members nervous and possibly imperil their careers; most of the time it would have little impact on the strength of party representation at Westminster. Kensington or South Shields will remain safe seats, no matter what mechanism is used to select candidates.

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And since turn-out in primary elections – even open, rather than closed primaries – is bound to be lower than in a general election, it seems probable that primaries might often be captured by candidates backed by muscular special interests capable of out-organising the competition. In other words, primaries could easily produce MPs further from the “mainstream” than is presently the case.

Perhaps that would not be a bad development but it is not necessarily obvious that this would produce a better class of parliamentarian either.

Similarly, the power of recall already, in effect, exists. It’s called a general election. If voters really are disgusted by their representative they already have the means for registering that disgust. They need only show some patience and wait a while.

There is, I think, little evidence that American states that allow for recall elections are better governed than those that do not.

California, of course, is the most prominent example of these states. But the evidence from the Golden State also suggests that recall is a power of limited use. Since 1913 only nine recall efforts have mustered sufficient signatures to trigger an actual recall election and of these only five have sacked the incumbent. (It may be telling, however, that six of the nine have come since 1994).

Then again, in the past 100 years there have been no fewer than 47 attempts to force  a recall election for the state’s governor. Many of these, doubtless, were trivial or vexatious or partisan efforts that led nowhere.

Even so, it is hard to avoid the thought that Carswell and Hannan’s plan to permit recall elections when just 10% of a constituencies’ electorate demand it is a plan open to serial and partisan abuse. In the British system this would permit recall elections if just 8,000 voters wanted a second-crack at the seat. Even if most of these efforts were defeated at the subsequent recall election one can easily imagine dozens of MPs facing largely-frivolous recall elections each parliament.

I suspect that fear is why the government seems oddly-minded to suggest MPs be given the right to sack one another. As Carswell says, this is a terrible idea further concentrating power at Westminster rather than, as he would like to see, diffusing it.   As so often our parliamentarians are adept at taking an idea of questionable value and transforming it into one of no merit whatsoever.

In any case, if the American example indicates anything (despite the application of all the usual and necessary caveats) it is that neither recall nor primaries guard against corruption, indolence or any other brand of nefarious behaviour.

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  • Russell Brady

    I also live in California and – forgetting about the primary system here for a minute – the direct plebiscite system here is completely corrupt and a joke. We should elect pols to do some work and not sub-contract their decision making to random special interests who buy one-off issue votes (often votes that completely contradict each other from one election to the next, sometimes even the same election). It’s bollix.

  • global city

    Very few issues, on their own, do change ‘everything’!

  • E Hart

    Good piece. I’m not sure we can take any lead from a bipartisan system with a very poor voter turnout and an even more purblind attitude to voters’ interests than we have here. The problem with our system is that it doesn’t reflect the plurality of the electorate any more than the US system does. Quiet part from the absence of plurality and proportionality, we’ve got the dubious privilege of often being governed by parties that have won a ‘landslide’ with a bit over a third of the vote. This screws up the whole relationship between government and governed because it permits unpopular policies to pass into statute. A strong minority government that stuffs the electorate with indigestible policies is a travesty on democracy and gives it a very bad name.

    Our system keeps in place a cosy cartel of parties that have coalesced into an amorphous, meaningless colour palette in the centre ground. No properly functioning democracy can claim that fighting it out for 30% of the seats is in any way representative. Convenient? Yes. Representative? Never.

    Carswell and Hannan’s point that, ‘This isn’t just about restoring the authority of Parliament; it’s about restoring honour and purpose to the act of voting’ is a great one. Unfortunately, they don’t follow it through to its logical conclusion. It isn’t enough to stiff the electorate with another quack remedy. What’s needed is dynamism. The belief that the vote not only counts for something but that it makes a difference is vital to the health of the system and participation. Too many people in Britain are of the belief that voting is pointless because it doesn’t make that difference.

    Fear of coalition – as opposed to the laughable contention that there is strong government under unrepresentative FPTP – oughtn’t to put us off a fairer system. Nor, for that matter, should constant references to the worst rather than best examples of the type. Every country brings its own historical baggage to whatever system it uses.

  • Remittance Man

    It is not how a nation elects its rulers, but how easily it can eject them that is the true measure of a democracy.

    In Britain it is virtually impossible to eject the buggers except at election time – something Cameron has now ensured will happen but twice in any decade.

  • CraigStrachan

    Well, I live in California and voted “no” on the recall of Gray Davis, although I didn’t vote for him either time he won in the regular election. I also routinely decline to sign recall petitions. I just don’t favor removing elected officials from office between scheduled elections on grounds of policy disagreement. Or even incompetence. Voters should take their responsibility seriously and do a thorough job of vetting these assholes in the first place. (Corruption is another matter).

    Then there is the question of cost – a couple million is the minimum outlay required to even qualify a statewide recall for the ballot, and probably at least twice as much again to run the campaign. These are costs born by proponents of the recall. Then there are the costs to the taxpayers of holding the additional election, which I really object to.

    So, if recall comes to the U.K, I suggest you borrow a principle from British libel law – those who sign the recall petition should be assessed the costs of the election if the recall fails. Would make people think that bit more seriously before signing.

  • LB

    Here are the problems.

    1. Governments not telling people about what they will do in their manifestos.
    2. Governments not doing what they said they would in a manifesto
    3. Not being able to vote out crooks.
    4. Not being able to change your mind until 5 years is up.
    5. Labour voter in Tory heartland, your vote counts for nothing.
    6. Marginal constituent? You decide for all
    7. Choice of candidate? Down to 5 people on a selection committee
    8. Having to vote on a package not on an issue.

    All solved by referenda by proxy.

  • Druth

    HMS Fauxsceptic has been badly holed and your proposal is; to move the chairs around on the deck?

  • LB

    Similarly, the power of recall already, in effect, exists. It’s called a general election. If voters really are disgusted by their representative they already have the means for registering that disgust. They need only show some patience and wait a while.


    And vote for the unacceptable to get rid of the unacceptable.

    Why should a Labour voter have to vote Tory to get rid of McShane and wait 5 years to readdress the matter?

    Why should the Lib Dem voter have to put up with a MP who lied over tuition fees for 5 years. Instead they should have a recall vote, and get rid of them immediately.

  • DouglasCarswell

    I think you might have not understood what it is that we are in fact proposing. We do not suggest that 10percent of constituents can recall an MP. Perhaps you might like to have a look at what it is we have actually suggested.
    Surprised you don’t think greater accountability drives up standards.
    Also, the fact that recall ballots have happened only rarely in California tends to suggest that they are not open to the kind of vexatious challenges you imply.
    Do read what we have suggested, rather than what you imagine we are proposing.

    • Alex Massie

      Douglas: it is *your* book that suggests the threshold for triggering a primary could be 10% of the electorate! (California, as you know, requires signatures of 12% of those who *voted* in the previous election). Accountability *might* drive up standards but there’s little American evidence, I think, supporting that proposition.

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