Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Why I do not support the recall of MPs

I am a great believer in representative democracy. You elect someone and if you do not like how he or she performs as your MP, you vote for someone else at the next election.

Increasingly, however - fuelled chiefly by the expenses scandal - there have been moves to allow voters to petition for the ejection of an MP between elections and the holding of by-elections.

Some versions of recall require an MP to be convicted of a criminal offence or some other former of wrongdoing. Others just require the voters not to like them very much.

It is this latter sort of recall that is championed by the Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith. And the problems with it were laid bare by the Labour MP Kevan Jones in the Commons today:
Mr Kevan Jones: I am very interested in what the hon. Gentleman says about recall empowering voters. In practice, would it not do what it does in the United States, which is to empower wealthy individuals who are not happy with what their representative is doing to mobilise against them? It would empower wealthy individuals, such as the hon. Gentleman, to influence events in a way that my ordinary constituents and I cannot? 
Zac Goldsmith: I will explain why such concerns are groundless during my speech, but I will make one point, partly in response to the Opposition spokesman. Concerns about expenditure during the recall process are a matter for regulations; the amendments that my colleagues and I seek to introduce would not tamper with the Government’s proposed regulations on expenses. That separate technical issue can be very easily addressed. 
Mr Jones: I am sorry, but that is not the point. Expenditure limits can be put on the recall election, but the campaigning in the lead-up to such an election would undermine the representative in getting their constituents— 
Douglas Carswell: Trust the voters. Mr Jones: This is not about trusting the voters, but about putting influence in the hands of a small group of very wealthy individuals. If the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), with the wealth he has, wanted to shift a Member of Parliament, he could do it. 
Zac Goldsmith: The hon. Gentleman takes a very dim view of his electorate if he thinks that that is so easy. Irrespective of that, the two-month petition stage before a referendum will be regulated, so his cost arguments simply do not apply. 
Mr Jones: What happens in practice in the United States is that individuals who take against a policy or a state or national representative can use their tremendous wealth to use a campaign in the lead-up to the recall election to undermine such a representative. The idea that that is somehow empowering the voters is not the case. Recall empowers very wealthy individuals who could then— 
Douglas Carswell: You don’t trust the voters. 
Mr Jones: I do trust the electorate. The hon. Gentleman should stop chuntering from a sedentary position. The fact is that recall will give influence over who the Member of Parliament is not to the majority of the electors but to a small group of very wealthy individuals.
Note how Douglas Carswell, despite his change of party, has mastered the art of modern politics - feigning outrage on behalf of some group or other. Most debates on education, for instance, consist in accusing your opponent of "not trusting parents" or "not trusting teachers".

Yes, it can be irritating if an MP is caught doing wrong and refuses to resign. But there is a danger that the cure will be worse than the remedy.

And I have a particular reason for not giving wealthy Tories - you might even say Richmond Tories - the power to launch campaigns against MPs from other parties in this way.

As I recalled back in 2010:
In 1981 Adrian Slade won the Richmond seat on the Greater London Council for the Liberal Party, defeating the sitting Conservative Edward Leigh in the process. The Conservatives then lodged an [unsuccessful] election petition, contesting the result because of technical errors in Slade's return of expenses for the contest. 
The process, however, left Adrian facing ruinous legal expenses. His friends rallied round and staged An Evening At Court on Sunday the 23 January 1983 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, to help him raise the money. As Smarter than the Average! tells you in exhaustive detail, many of the greats of British comedy performed that evening.

1 comment:

liveotherwise said...

I don't quite follow. You don't want to have a recall process because rich people might affect people's opinions? That's happening all the time anyway.

I think that voters should be able to recall MPs, and in more than just criminal situations. For instance, an MP defecting to a different party I think should be an automatic by election, but if it's not, then it should be possible for the electorate to recall them (and if they didn't, that could be seen as an endorsement of the defection without the expense of a by election I suppose).

Rich people campaign in all sorts of ways against the rest of us, many by owning and influencing media outlets. I don't think that's a good reason to step away from attempting to improve access to democracy between election dates which are now set in stone.