The Coalition has waded into the long grass this week to retrieve the recall proposals it kicked there after it came to power. However, Nick Clegg’s now revived proposals aren’t a proper right of recall and he knows it. In response to Zac Goldsmith (someone who knows what real recall is and has fought valiantly to promote it) the Deputy Prime Minister called the Government’s proposed scheme a “back stop reassurance”. But we deserve and require more than a back stop.
The case of Patrick Mercer has shown all too well why we need a recall power. He felt his actions demanded that he resign from his party and not seek re-election in 2015, but the very constituents to whom he owes his seat in Parliament have no opportunity for their voices to be heard on the matter. Unless he were to quit the Commons of his own choice and cause a by-election, Mr Mercer will happily remain MP for Newark for two more years, continuing to claim his annual £65,738 salary plus expenses throughout that time. The same democratic deficit is also faced by the electorate represented by Falkirk MP, Eric Joyce, who has quit the Labour Party and announced that he won’t stand again, but intends sitting out the remainder of the Parliament.
It’s clear to see we need a proper recall mechanism and we need it now. Yet the Government has revived its Frankenstein recall proposals which won’t even be introduced until next summer.
The Government’s proposal is terrible; in fact, it’s almost worse than no recall at all. It would centralise more power in Westminster, rather than handing it to the real independent experts, the local electorates . Under the Government’s plans, before any recall ballot could be held, an MP would need to be censured by a Commons committee, and only then would just 10 per cent of a constituency electorate be able to trigger a by-election. This simply hands power to a parliamentary committee comprising members of the political elite. This committee would in effect determine whether someone is sent packing from Westminster back to their constituency, rather than the other way around. Such a decision might well be made because of serious wrongdoing, but (call me a cynic) the committee could be influenced against a particular member if he or she has annoyed the powers-that-be. Given the power of the party apparatuses, these proposals would be bad news for independent-minded MPs who serve their constituents well, but may be a thorn in the side of the Westminster elite.
And what about MPs who don’t technically break any rule and therefore avoid a parliamentary censure, but whose behaviour warrants scrutiny between elections? I’m thinking of the hypothetical MP who heads off on holidays for months on end, fails to contribute in Parliament from one year to the next, breaks solemn election promises, refuses to meet with constituents seeking their help, or simply decides that they prefer to the live the life of a cat...
The case for a proper recall system is incredibly strong which is why all three major parties recognised that the public wanted recall and pledged to introduce it in their 2010 manifestos. Yet after the election, when those in charge of the Coalition realised the implications of handing power to people who actually might want to exercise it, they dropped the plans like a hot brick. And we wonder why people have little or no faith in politicians.
The events of the last week have made the case for recall irrefutable, but it is important that the Government’s Frankenstein bill is rejected in favour of something that gives people more power, not less.