As Westminster’s Ugly Side Reappears, Voters Need Proper Power Between Elections

I may be elliding memories but there seemed a time when politics was dominated by Damian Green and Henry Bolton - now probably both forgotten.

One was accused of groping a young Tory activist, and then of viewing pornogrphy on his work computer; the other had ditched his fiance who had been sending racist text messages to a friend.

As I listened to the Jeremy Vine Show in this not-so-distant past, I heard callers simultaneously demanding that we hold politicians to a higher standard but also that politicians be treated the same as we are in our workplaces.

Thus is the mystery of voters.

MPs bad behaviour has not gone away. Both parties are grappling with the problem that recent scandals have brought. They are doing so badly because they are also trying to protect their interests.

Worst of all, Commons Speaker John Bercow, presides over the chamber and has been subject of many allegations of bullying - but he is not even under investigation.

MPs do have it within their power to censure and even fire Bercow. But who has this power over MPs?

It is perfectly clear that new processes are needed to deal with MPs who bully and harass their staff. The process needs to be independent. It needs to be non-partisan.

The question is, what happens then? It may be an unpopular argument but we cannot treat MPs like ordinary workers: MPs are elected representatives. Would we really be comfortable with an unaccountable tribunal - however nobly intentioned - sacking an MP who had been put in his or her job by 30,000 voters. That is the logic.

However we treat errant representatives, it must be democratically.

The frustrating part of this debate is that the solution has been knocking around the political world for the best part of the last decade: the power of recall.

Voter-initiated recall is a democratic endpoint. It extends the idea of accountability

The expenses scandal was one of the lowest moments in terms of the public’s trust of MPs. This was worsened when it became clear that there were many offending MPs who would remain in place with impunity until election day. In response, both the Conservatives and Lib Dems promised voters the power to “recall” their MPs.

Recall is a process where an elected representative is potentially removed in between elections by voters. It is a feature in the constitutions of 11 countries from the United States to Venezuela. Perhaps the most celebrated recall elections of recent years was the 2003 recall of Gray Davis which led to the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor of California.

The Coalition Government did pass a recall bill but made the conditions upon which voters could remove their MP so tight as to be meaningless. Voters only enter into the process on Parliament’s say so.  

Why the Coalition was so timid only they can say. It was perhaps a fear that voters, unaware of the role of an MP, would recall MPs on spurious grounds. However, as Zac Goldsmith has said, the present law would allow him to change parties to the BNP, and for his electors to have no say in the matter.

Both sides are right.

Voter-initiated recall is a democratic endpoint. It extends the idea of accountability. However, without a starting point recall could become messy. That does not mean the Coalition was right. What they should have done was find the starting point: what do we expect from our elected representatives in the 21st century?

Here, Jeremy Vine makes it clear that voters do not have a clear idea.

Where there is a problem, there is generally an opportunity. Citizen-initiated recall solves many problems that the ‘Pestminster’ scandals raise. It goes further as well. Let's make it work then.

It would be perfectly possible for the House of Commons to impose a standard code of conduct for MPs and this to become the basis for articles of recall against erring MPs. A better solution might be for voters themselves to decide before elections what they want from their MPs.

The Electoral Commission could lead an open process in every constituency. It would both empower and inform. Want an MP who does not claim expenses? These are the facts. And so on.

These concerns and ideas could then be turned into a non-partisan “contract with voters” so that parliamentary candidates know the basis upon which they are being elected.

Each code becomes a benchmark for its MP. If they fail that code, then it provides the basis for their recall.

This is the land of Boaty McBoatface after all.

Real recall puts the voter in charge not just at elections 

At the moment, 10% of a constituency petitioning within six weeks will trigger a recall election. This means a by-election in which the recalled MP is allowed to stand. However, shouldn’t we also allow for recall elections where the sitting is barred should another threshold be met?

Real recall puts the voter in charge not just at elections so that MPs truly become ‘servants of the people’.

A minister who resigns on the basis of their conduct might find that voters think their conduct also not good enough for the House of Commons. MPs who suddenly take on extra jobs might find their voters disapprove.

Better still, MPs might themselves seek fresh mandates when they change the facts rather than wait for voters to judge them.  

What recall does not do is create a fair playing field. Politics can never be objective or impartial. It does not mean MPs become “like us”. What may matter to a voter in Sheffield is not what may matter to a voter in Devon. It is better than fair. It’s democracy.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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