Misguided proposal for constituents to ‘recall’ their MP

I submitted the following letter to the Guardian on 1 June, in reply to a Guardian editorial inexplicably supporting the proposal now being espoused by the government for a given number of an MP’s constituents to be allowed to ‘recall’ him or her, either ending his political career or forcing him to vacate his seat and stand for re-election in a by-election:

The Guardian should not be supporting the idea of constituents having the right to recall — ie dismiss — their MP between elections, however many of them might vote to do so (Editorial, 1 June).  Fear of de-selection already makes too many MPs slaves of their constituents, especially their local parties.  They already tend to spend too much time as untrained and unqualified social workers in their constituencies, doing work that should be done by local Councillors and social workers, at the expense of their real jobs at Westminster — holding government to account and ensuring that the laws they pass are fit for purpose.

Not only must MPs try to avoid de-selection by their local parties: their careers depend on the approval of the party Whips, with their threats and bribes to compel them to vote according to their parties’ instructions, not their own best judgement and conscience.

We already see a House of Commons largely comprising automatons, lobby fodder with only rare signs of an independent spirit.  Adding the power of recall at the whim of constituents would inevitably aggravate this dismal situation.  We should remember Burke’s dictum that your MP owes you “not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”  The time to get rid of an unsatisfactory MP is when he or she stands for re-election, not at random times between elections whenever he incurs momentary unpopularity by some act of brave defiance.

Brian Barder
London SW18
1 June 2013

The Guardian publishes my letter today (4 June) but with the regrettable deletion of the vital Burke quotation in the penultimate sentence, thereby much blunting its effect.

A variant of the ‘recall’ proposal, not mentioned in my letter, is that a defined number of an MP’s constituents should have the power to recall him or her in retribution for some kind of ‘misbehaviour’. This too seems to me misconceived.  If an MP is convicted of a criminal offence of sufficient gravity (as defined by law) to warrant it, he or she should automatically lose his seat and be disqualified from standing for re-election, as is already the case.  If an MP has been found to have broken parliamentary rules of some kind but not to have broken the law, it should be up to parliament, not some arbitrary percentage of his constituents, to decide and impose an appropriate penalty, but not including expulsion from the House (which defies the judgement of his constituents who elected him).  Some arbitrary proportion of an MP’s constituents are not equipped to act as some kind of combined judge and jury: even an erring MP is entitled to due process.  Once an MP is elected, unless he commits a serious crime, he should be left to get on with it, free to risk unpopularity and controversy between elections and held to account for his record only at the next election.

Of course an MP elected as the candidate of a specific political party owes his seat and his loyalty to his party, but not when that loyalty comes into conflict with his best judgement and conscience.  The threats and bribes deployed by party whips (and mentioned in my Guardian letter above) are in obvious contempt of parliament:  anyone outside parliament who attempted to bribe an MP to vote in a particular way, or who threatened to terminate his political career unless he voted this way or that, would rightly be hauled before the Bar of the House, lectured, humiliated and punished.  It would be very good discipline if the leaders and whips of the parties were made to rely on argument and persuasion to get their MPs into the desired voting lobbies, and not on blackmail.

Say No to the recall of MPs!




11 Responses

  1. Stephen Plowden says:

    Brian is absolutely right about this. What a shame that the Burke quotation was not included. The only possible reasons for getting rid of an MP between elections would be grave misconduct and incapacitating illness. I imagine that both those contingencies are covered by the existing procedures.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Stephen. Yes, I think existing rules cover both eventualities very adequately.

  2. John Greenwell says:

    I agree with the comment entirely and would also apply without qualification to parliamentary democracy in Australia.

  3. Rob says:

    I think it would be a good idea but only if a system in which warnings should given by local constituencies, then if the MP still fails they should be  recalled  and removed if not acceptable.
    Look at my area the MP does not need anything or do anything it’s been Labour since 1908, you can stick a red rose on a cats back side and call it an MP it would win, and to be honest sometimes they act like a cats backside.
    Being a career politician these days means if your in a safe seat  your pretty safe, if your not then I seem to think the MP has to work at keeping his seat.
    My MP is safe and boy does it show.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. Fortunately there is no mechanism whereby “local constituencies” could deliver “warnings” to your MP. If by “local constituencies” you mean the MP’s local party, Labour, Conservative or whatever, it would be quite unconstitutional for a local party to issue “warnings” to an MP, threatening to remove him or her unless the MP obeys the party’s orders more slavishly: once elected, an MP represents everyone who lives in his constituency, regardless of whether they voted for him, and he is answerable to his entire electorate, not to a small coterie of local activists of the left, right or centre. In any case, as Burke eloquently reminds us (see quotation in my letter to the Guardian above), an MP is elected to exercise his own judgement and conscience, not slavishly to act in accordance with the opinions of his constituents — even if they could be said to have a single collective opinion.

  4. Tim Weakley says:

    The recall system is used in the USA for elected officials at the local level like judges in lower courts, public attorneys, county sheriffs, police chiefs, and fire chiefs.  My limited observation suggests it is applied in cases where the person is blatantly incompetent or partial.  I don’t recall successful attempts at recalling state officials or elected state or federal representatives.  Americans, please correct me if necessary!

    Brian writes: Thank you for this interesting comment. I think the recall principle raises rather different issues when applied to a largely elected judiciary, state and federal prosecuting attorneys, etc., from those that apply to elected members of the national or state legislatures or executives. It could be argued that in the American system an elected judge ought to be answerable to those who elected him for his impartiality, industry, incorruptibility, etc., and his conduct generally, not only at election time but between elections also, although in my own view (FWIW) an electorate is a quite inappropriate body for making judgements on any of these matters, which should be decided by the courts if due process is to mean anything. Since in the UK we don’t elect our judges or prosecuting authorities (thank goodness), these matters don’t arise.

    What could be relevant to the proposal to introduce a recall system for UK MPs, though, is how well or badly the American system for recalling state governors has worked over the years, although even then there’s an important diffence between recalling a governor who heads the state’s executive, and recalling an MP (or Congressman or Senator) who is part of the legislature, not the esxecutive (leaving aside an MP who is also a member of the government — should such an MP, for example the prime minister, be subject to recall, causing the fall of his or her government?). I seem to remember a recent unsuccessful attempt to recall the governor of Wisconsin, for example, and a successful recall of a governor of California?

    My impression is that in practice US state governors (or legislators?) aren’t recalled by their electorates unless there’s water-tight evidence of corruption, blatantly criminal (or immoral?) activity, or other misbehaviour that an ordinary sensible person would regard as a disqualification for continuing in office. Even if that’s so, however, I would still argue that the decision to remove a democratically elected official before his or her term of office has expired is one that should be taken only by a court of law after due process has been followed, and not by an amorphous body of voters whose judgement will almost inevitably be swayed by party political, ideological or personal considerations that should have no place in such decisions. But I can see that there could be an argument that it’s undemocratic for any court, however impartial and judicious, to override an appointment sanctified by the votes of the electorate, which alone should have the right to reverse that decision by prematurely terminating the appointment. Perhaps the ideal would be the right of recall by the electorate with the requirement that the initiation of a popular vote on recall must be approved in advance by a suitable court or other judicial body.

  5. David Ratford says:

    Brian constructs a case which, even shorn of the Burke quotation, demonstrates his customary eloquence and if we had a truly democratic electoral system I would agree with him. As things are, it doesn’t stand up, because it rests on a hollow foundation. His central proposition is that we should get rid of unsatisfactory MPs at the next following election He thus ignores the reality that in our undemocratic, unrepresentative, dysfunctional, 1865 Model T(rollope) of a Parliament, (“largely comprising automatons, lobby fodder”), only those MPs returned by the tiny proportion of marginal constituencies are genuinely elected. Brian’s “remedy” thus turns out to be that we should rely on unsatisfactory MPs being dismissed by those same local committees of the “swivel-eyed” (Tories swivel clockwise, Labour anti-clockwise) that had in effect designated them in the first place.

    Brian writes: David, thanks: you never pass up an opportunity to denounce our electoral system in seductively colourful terms, do you? This thread, however, is about the pros and cons of giving voters the power to ‘recall’ (sack) their MPs between elections, and the arguments for (if any) and against (many) are not affected by the kind of system under which MPs are elected. You imply that there would be fewer unsatisfactory (because unrepresentative) MPs, and fewer MPs in safe seats, under a different electoral system, presumably meaning some form of proportional representation (PR), but I am unpersuaded that this is the case. In a country where no single party has won 50% or more of the national vote since well before the second world war, and where the present trend is for the total vote to be divided roughly evenly among four parties (making it even more unlikely that any one of them can possibly win more than half of the votes cast), it’s inevitable that many, perhaps most, MPs will not be the most favoured candidate in their constituency elections.
    Ingenious PR electoral systems try to disguise this reality, usually by tacking onto a candidate’s first-preference (minority) votes enough second- and if necessary third-preference votes to appear to give him an overall majority; but except when the winner won 50% or more of the votes on the first count, in which case he would have won outright under any system, the reality will always be that more of his constituents would have preferred a different candidate to the winner, just as as in the present system which you so eloquently condemn. Accordingly, in the majority of constituencies, the sitting MP will be regarded as more or less unsatisfactory by a majority of his voters (i.e. the majority who voted for someone else).
    This reflects the political reality that automatic tribal loyalty to one or the other of two main parties has weakened to the point of invisibility, and only one party (the Conservative party) is now clearly identified with one of the great interest groups in the state (i.e. the property-owning, employer and managerial classes). Moreover, it’s increasingly difficult for any national government to demonstrate that it is successfully governing the country because the globalisation of big business has put it beyond the control or even regulation of single national governments, whose national policies are therefore at the mercy of international business and financial interests (“the market”). Fiddling with the electoral system can’t affect any of these factors.
    The point here, however, is that in the many places where (under any voting system) most voters will have voted for a candidate other than the elected MP, the temptation to vote to ‘recall’ him or her will tend to be strong, however well or badly the MP may be behaving. Even worse, the very existence of a power of recall will tend to make most MPs even more slavishly dependent on keeping their constituents sweet instead of exercising their own independent judgements — and focusing their real work on Westminster, not on doing amateurish social work in their constituencies.
    But I’m happy to see that apart from our differences over PR, you agree in principle with the case against a recall system.

  6. Ken Blyth says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with your letter, and with your displeasure at the Guardian’s omission of the Burke quotation. .  Might the Guardian have thought the majority of its current target readership would not have a clue who Burke was? 
    An incidental query on an oddity.  I doubt whether you read The Week, but has someone already mentioned to you that in its latest issue (8 June) on its regular page headed Pick of the week’s correspondence, it reproduces your letter (marking it ‘To The Guardian’) with the Burke quotation included?  (Its only omission was your hyphen in ‘de-selection’.)  How come, I wonder, that The Week got the quotation?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Ken. I imagine that The Week took the text of my letter from the Guardian’s website which did include the Burke quotation — see http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/jun/03/limits-lobbying-parliament. I suppose the Guardian’s main reason for omitting Burke from the print edition would have been lack of space for it, and the difficulty of finding any other sentence in the letter that could have been omitted without a msystifying lack of connection between adjacent sentences. Alternatively it might have been a Guardian objection to a quotation from a philosopher and politician regarded as a founder of modern conservatism; or the editing of my letter might have been done by an 18-year-old intern who had never heard of Burke, which, as you suggest, may be assumed by the Guardian (I think probably wrongly) to be true of the bulk of the Guardian’s readers. Anyway, full marks to The Week for picking out my letter! (And many thanks for letting me know.)

  7. robin fairlie says:

    Or might it just be that the Guardian felt Burke (for its readers) to be too much of a tired old cliché to justify yet another outing?

    Brian writes: Burke’s dictum may well be a “tired old cliché” to people of your and my rather elderly generation, Robin, who were brought up on it: but I wonder how familiar it is to most British people under the age of 75? If even Guardian readers are as familiar with it as you and me, it’s strange that the general assumption now seems to be that MPs should be slavishly bound to reflect the opinions and indeed to obey the instructions of their constituents. When a Guardian editorial comes out in support of the idea of constituents acquiring the right to ‘recall’ their MP at any time between elections, might it not be a good time to remind ourselves and those younger than us of what Burke had to say on the matter?

  8. robin fairlie says:

    I think (hope) the Guardian’s support for the right of recall springs not from a desire to punish MPs for voting in a way disapproved of by some/most/all of their constituents, but rather from a desire to see the possibility of a swift end to the Parliamentary careers of such as the recent egregious Mitchell – there have been not a few others. I agree with you insofar as the unrestricted right of recall advocated by, for example, Zac Goldsmith would be intolerable, but there are other possible methodologies which are surely worth considering – in which context Burke is irrelevant.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this further comment, Robin. I still disagree, however, on two issues. First, the travails of Andrew Mitchell (why is he ‘egregious’?) stemmed from a series of allegations against him made by a group of police officers, the principal ones of these proving on (much delayed) investigation to be contradicted by the evidence of the Downing Street surveillance TV cameras. One of the most telling pieces of evidence against him, written by someone who claimed to have witnessed the incident as a casual passer-by, turned out to have been written by a police officer (perhaps retired, I’m not sure) who in fact had been nowhere near Downing Street at the relevant time. The overwhelming likelihood is that Mitchell was set up by a group of police officers, some of whom have been suspended pending belated investigations, and at least one of whom improperly leaked the confidential police log to a newspaper. Mr Mitchell, who is now widely expected to return to the government in an early reshuffle, is thus a singularly inappropriate example of an MP who deserved to be recalled by his constituents. If any MP deserves censure, it must be the prime minister, who closely followed Tony Blair’s example by dismissing a government (but not Cabinet) colleague on the basis of unsubstantiated accusations, and only then belatedly set up an investigation which exonerated the by now ‘disgraced’ victim (Blair followed this cowardly sequence not once but twice in the case of Peter Mandelson, as you may remember).

    Secondly, I reject as a parody of justice and due process the idea that some random percentage of an MP’s electorate would be a suitable body to act as judge and jury, empowered to terminate the MP’s career and publicly to disgrace him, when he is exposed in the media, accurately or otherwise, as having behaved in a way that most reasonable people would regard as objectionable, even if not involving a criminal offence. Even if the evidence of objectionable but not illegal behaviour is incontrovertible (as it was not in the case of Mitchell), there are clearly degrees of offensiveness which deserve to be matched by penalties of varying degrees of severity — the punishment should always fit the “crime”. It must be for parliament, or a body established by parliament, to make the required judgement of the truth or falsity of the allegations and of the offensiveness of the behaviour complained of, and the corresponding severity of the penalty to be inflicted, in the light of all the circumstances, including any mitigating factors. No group of several hundreds or thousands of voters could possibly make such fine judgements, and even if they could, the only weapon at their disposal would be the blunt instrument of ‘recall’ — meaning ignominious ejection from parliament. Needless to say, if the offending behaviour has involved breaking the law, that’s normally a matter for the courts, not the MP’s electorate, and there are already perfectly sensible rules in place to determine whether the gravity of the breach of the law warrants the expulsion of the MP from the house of commons, or some lesser penalty.

    There was a longish period when the allegations against Andrew Mitchell (including what was mysteriously regarded as his most damning offence, his alleged use of the word ‘plebs’ as applied to the policemen or policewoman concerned, strenuously denied by Mitchell) were almost universally believed (although not by me)and Mitchell was widely reviled. If there had been an MPs recall system in place at the time, it’s overwhelmingly likely that Mitchell would have been a victim of it, partly because it took so unpardonably long for him to be properly investigated and as a result exonerated.

  9. Rob says:

    Miliband and Ball’s speeches this week took some of the activist down by me with shock, they asked was this discussed before hand, did anyone know about these cuts to welfare by Labour, who, why, what for.  I think we should be able to sack out MP’s we voted them in we should be able to vote them out surely an MP is voted in to do his best for the local area and the constituency , if not we may as well sick a rose on the back side of the cat.
    I’m having great trouble seeing labour route these days the problem is we have a two party cartel and we desperately need a new Party to put pressure on these two who are either in power or in opposition  for way to long. little wonder  most of the country does not vote.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. But your comments seem to me to rely on several misconceptions. Everyone, of any party, who has taken the trouble to look at the figures is bound to agree that we are spending far too much on ‘welfare’: the question is not whether to cut it, but how. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls (not Ball) propose to reduce it by applying a stimulus to aggregate demand in the economy in various forms — public spending on large-scale construction projects, a cut in VAT, etc., calculated to reduce unemployment (currently at a horrendous 8% or so, a scandalous waste of resources quite apart from the human misery and hardship it entails), thus both reducing state spending on unemployment and many other benefits and also increasing revenue from taxes (income tax, VAT, etc.). The Coalition, by contrast, lacks the imagination to do anything to reduce welfare payments except by reducing entitlements, thus inflicting further hardship on the most vulnerable and also further throttling overall demand in the economy, which negates any benefit expected from harsher welfare policies. Those unable to see which of these two approaches is (a) more likely to succeed, and (b) more humane, need to send their moral compasses in for repair.

    The fact that the electorate has sent an MP to the house of commons doesn’t mean that some random proportion of it should also have the right to sack him on a passing whim. We send MPs to Westminster to exercise their best judgements in legislating for us and holding the government to account, not to obey our instructions from day to day. If we don’t like the way they have exercised the mandate we have given them, the time to throw them out is at the next election, assuming that another preferable candidate is on offer.

    I’m surprised at your assertion that “we have a two-party cartel” and that we need yet another new party. Fifty years ago this was arguably the case, when the Labour party and the Conservatives regularly won around 80% of the national vote between them (although even then neither of them ever won more than 50% of the total vote). Now those two parties barely win two-thirds of the total vote: nearly a quarter of the electorate supports either UKIP or the LibDems; another 10% supports other parties (e.g. the Greens and the nationalist parties). Even under First Past the Post no single party now looks likely to win an overall majority in the house of commons at the next election or any other foreseeable election. We are condemned to either unstable and divided coalitions pursuing policies for which by definition none of us voted, or else minority governments liable to be thrown out at any moment by a majority opposition, only for the same situation to be repeated at the consequent election. Either way, the prospects for a single-minded and determined government, elected on a clear policy manifesto, and able to plan and work on a long-term basis even if it involves temporary unpopularity along the way, are negligible. The creation of yet another new party, as you propose, would further aggravate the problem.

  10. Rob says:

    Sorry about my missing S maybe I should commit suicide to help the welfare cost.

  11. robin fairlie says:

    I do think you should acknowledge that many (most?) of the calls for a power of recall are not at all connected with how an MP votes, but with how he/she behaves – and that, in this context, Burke is wholly irrelevant. That an MP found guilty of misbehaviour by Parliament itself should be subject to recall by a vote of his/her constituents does not seem to me a wholly unreasonable proposition. Can we, if the subject merits further discussion, please discuss the real issues, not some Aunt Sally involving Burke and his comments on representation vs delegation.

    Brian writes: Thank you once more. Please see the penultimate paragraph of my post and the last paragraph of my response to Tim Weakley at http://www.barder.com/3977/comment-page-1#comment-186475, both of which deal with the point you make. Some arbitrary percentage of a constituency electorate seems to me about as unsuitable a body to act as a trial judge and jury with power to end a politician’s career as it’s possible to imagine, whether acting because of disapproval of either his views or his behaviour, and least of all his votes.

    It anyway seems to me clear from the media and the blogosphere that very many advocates of the recall procedure envisage using it to punish an MP not just for the way he votes but also for the way he speaks and writes (in and out of parliament, including on television), for his attendance record, for the frequency of his visits to his constituency and the length of time he spends there, for his views on controversial issues such as abortion or women bishops, and for any inappropriate remarks he may be accused by some policepersons of having addressed to the same policepersons, whether he actually made them or not. I don’t accept that Burke’s dictum is irrelevant to all these matters.

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