Other than perhaps estate agents or bankers, it’s hard to think of a group of people more unpopular than Britain’s political class. Votes for fourth parties – of both green and purple stripes – are often explained by disillusionment with the Westminster elite, amidst a festering sense that the representatives we send to Parliament still don’t entirely understand the disconnect between the elected and the electorate that has been created by scandals and broken promises.
But now, that so-called elite has a chance to take a vital first step in rebuilding the bridges not so much burnt as demolished. The power for voters to recall errant MPs has been long discussed, but the Recall Bill will go before a Committee of the Whole House today – giving Parliamentarians the chance to amend the current fudge of a Bill in favour of one that delivers real recall.
The vast majority of MPs are hard-working, decent people, but all of their good work can disappear in a headline from Portsmouth South (Mike Hancock MP) or a 32-second apology in the Commons (Maria Miller MP). In short, whatever they’re doing at the minute to rebuild the link between them and their voters isn’t working.
That’s why this Recall Bill is crucial, and why it is so worrying that the current proposals are as weak as they are. In truth, though this Bill looks like recall and sounds like recall, it’s nothing of the sort. Real recall would allow an individual voter to take up a clipboard and start petitioning fellow constituents to recall a misbehaving MP. That’s what we were promised by the Coalition back in the days of the Rose Garden, but that’s not what we’ve been given. Far from real recall, this Bill would give a committee of MPs the power to decide whether an MP is to be eligible for the process. This grubby little stitch-up of a proposal would only centralise it further and do nothing for the reputation of Parliament.
To call the current proposals a fudge would be an insult to Cadbury’s. That’s why we, along with 38 Degrees, have been pushing all parties to introduce real recall by supporting amendments as the Bill has made its way through the Commons. These amendments, tabled by Zac Goldsmith MP, would take the parliamentary committee out of the process, leaving voters as the only arbiters.
These amendments do of course have safeguards in place: an MP would only be subject to a by-election if three, increasingly high, thresholds for citizen discontent were met – and recall has been sparingly used in the numerous countries and US states in which it exists. Fears that disgruntled members of the public would cause political paralysis with endless recall petitions are misplaced, and betray a view of the electorate that does Westminster no favours. Despite what it might look like from a brief look at twitter, the vast majority of people in this country take their democratic responsibilities seriously.
The list of MPs supporting the amendments has expanded rapidly. Real recall would not only be a symbolic step forward for democracy, but would end safe seats for life. It would focus the mind of any MPs who might err. It would turn democracy into a full-time affair, not a five-yearly jamboree. It says something that the TaxPayers’ Alliance and 38 Degrees are working together, and it’s not often Douglas Carswell MP and John Mann MP are on the same page. We may not always see eye-to-eye on policies, but strengthening our democracy is something we can all get behind.
It is ironic that if the Bill goes through as it is, a political measure designed to bring Westminster closer to the people would only push them further apart. If Parliament is to restore its reputation, it must show it trusts voters and support Zac Goldsmith’s amendments today.