I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to permit voters to recall their elected representatives in specified circumstances;
and for connected purposes.
All MPs are aware of just how strained the relationship between people and power has become. We have reached a depressing point in our history when even thoughtful commentators find it easier just to agree limply when they hear someone shrieking that all politicians are liars and thieves. To mount a defence goes against the collective popular gut feeling and requires more energy than most people have.
What worries me is how low that issue is on the Westminster political agenda. There is a sense that it is just a passing problem and that, in time, people will come back to the fold because there is no real alternative. Some even blame the expenses scandal, as if everything was okay before 2009. We know that it was not. Voter turnout has been decreasing for years. The memberships of political parties have plummeted to miserable levels. Among voters, there is an overwhelming sense that politics has become so detached and remote that, no matter how they vote or even whether they vote, nothing can change. I think that we are at an important turning point.
Democracy has evolved in this country, on the whole without too much violence. We should consider the first Reform Act of 1832, when the vast social transformation that had been brought about by industrialisation meant that politicians had no alternative but to yield to society’s demand that they broaden the franchise and give more people more ownership of their democracy. That happened again in 1867, when reforms were brought in that effectively doubled the number of men who were able to vote. More reforms followed in 1884. In 1918, the first women were allowed to vote, albeit only those over the age of 30 and with property to their name. That changed in 1928, when everyone over the age of 21 could vote, whether they were a man or a woman. In 1969, the voting age was lowered to 18. In one way or another, each of those steps has involved Parliament, sometimes reluctantly, handing power to people and edging us towards a purer democracy. Today, no one questions the wisdom of any of those reforms. I believe that it is time for us to take another step towards a purer democracy.
In the past few years, our world has changed beyond recognition. We have access to instant news from tens of thousands of different sources. Anyone can create a media platform and become a media baron. We no longer depend on a small handful of newspaper proprietors to inform our politics. Whereas voters used to rely on the odd newsletter and occasional newspaper report to find out about their MP, today’s voters can see in real time what their MP is saying and doing, and whether and how they are voting.
While those vast changes have taken hold, the way in which we do democracy has stood still. We still have a system in which, once elected, an MP is almost entirely insulated from any pressure from his or her constituents until five years or so later in the next general election.
There is no mechanism that allows voters to sack their MP. An MP can switch to an extreme party, systematically break each and every promise that they made before the election, refuse to turn up in Parliament or refuse to engage in any meaningful sense with their electorate, but unless they are jailed for more than 12 months an MP is effectively unmoveable. It is therefore no surprise that, from the moment an election is over, the pressure is all top-down from the party, not bottom-up from the constituents.
In the heat of the expenses scandal, the leaders of all three mainstream parties seemed finally to understand the full extent of the public disillusionment with politics. Perhaps in a panic, they came up with a powerful idea: they promised to bring in a system of recall that would allow voters to hold their MPs to account at all times. That was a straightforward promise and recognition of the problem that showed a willingness to trust voters and to treat them as grown-ups.
However, now that the Deputy Prime Minister has been asked to produce a recall Bill, he has come up with an idea that is so far removed from genuine recall that it is recall only in name. It is an attempt to convey an impression of democratic reform without empowering voters in any sense at all. I am yet to find anyone inside or outside Parliament who supports the Government Bill.
True recall is a very simple mechanism. If a percentage of constituents—usually around 20%—sign a petition in a given time frame, they earn the right to have a referendum in which voters are asked whether they want to recall their MP. If more than half of the voters say yes, there is a subsequent by-election. By contrast, under the Government’s proposals, power will move up, not down, and to a parliamentary Committee, not to voters. The Committee on Standards—whose Chairman, incidentally, has already said that he does not want these extra powers—would determine, using extraordinarily narrow criteria, whether an MP qualified for recall. If that happened, there would be no recall referendum in which Members could defend themselves against whatever charges had been raised. There would effectively be an immediate by-election, fought in the national context. No Member, good or bad, would stand a chance under that process, not least because no association would be crazy enough to reselect a Member once the Committee had pointed its finger.
Instead of bringing in reforms to empower people to hold this institution to account, which was what all three parties promised, the Government want to introduce a system that empowers the institution to hold itself to account. Given that, I say good luck to the mavericks, the independent-minded MPs who are here on their own without the protection of party. Let us be clear that under the Government’s plans, an MP could refuse to perform any one of the functions required of them and still not qualify for recall. If the Government push ahead with the proposal, it will merely confirm all the prejudices that people have about politics. Voters will see that despite all the promises, they have not been empowered at all, they have been duped.
Perhaps putting it more politely than I have, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee examined the Government’s Bill and said that their version of recall would
“reduce public confidence in politics by creating expectations that are not fulfilled.”
The Deputy Prime Minister has explained why the Government want a form of recall that is not actually recall, repeatedly expressing fears about what he describes as kangaroo courts. However, he must understand that, under a recall system, the only court is the constituency and the only jurors his constituents. It is true, of course, that there could be vexatious attempts to collect enough signatures to get rid of a decent MP, but in the average constituency the threshold would be about 15,000 voters. By contrast, most local parties would consider themselves lucky if they had more than 500 members. If 15,000 of my constituents signed a petition demanding my recall, I would feel a little silly trying to blame it on my opponents locally.
It is worth pointing out that recall already happens all over the world. It is not a novel idea, and it happens in its purest form. As far as I am aware, nowhere are there any examples at all of successful vexatious recall campaigns. In truth, the arguments against genuine recall, when we boil them down, are arguments against democracy itself.
For voters, of course recall makes sense. It would allow them to keep their MPs on their toes, even those in safe seats, and give them a much-needed sense of ownership over their democracy. However, I maintain that true recall is in our interest too, because it would begin the process of healing the broken relationship between people and power. In a true democracy, it would make no sense for voters to dismiss Parliament with the sweeping generalisations that are so normal today, because in such a democracy people would truly have the MP they deserved. If they were unhappy with their representative, they would have no one to blame but themselves.
Some years ago my hon. Friend Mr Carswell introduced a Bill similar to the one that I propose today, and he described parliamentary democracy as
“our supreme contribution to the happiness of mankind.”—[Hansard, 13 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 168.]
He was right, but our fragile democracy has flourished because it has evolved, and it must evolve again.
Question accordingly agreed to.
That Zac Goldsmith, Mr Charles Kennedy, Mr Douglas Carswell, Robert Halfon, Mr Graham Stuart, Nick de Bois, Mr Frank Field, Kate Hoey, Steve Baker, Mark Reckless, Caroline Lucas and Mr Michael Meacher present the Bill.
Zac Goldsmith accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on