Independent View: why we should all campaign for full recall

For over six years now I have worked on Parliamentary campaigns such as the Sustainable Communities Act and the Climate Change Act. I have done this as an independent freelance, unaffiliated to any political party and always seeking cross party support.

This experience has given me a deep insight into our system of governance from the Ministers and senior civil servants at the top, whom I meet in Westminster and Whitehall, to communities at the bottom, whom I meet at campaign public meetings that I speak at across the country.

Our democratic system desperately needs reform. People increasingly feel disconnected from political processes and from decisions which are taken that affect their lives.

The Power Inquiry of 2006 showed evidence that over three-quarters of people felt they had little or no power between elections, and that 56 per cent of people consider that they have no say in what the government does.

Parliament is meant to hold the government to account. Yet currently the reverse happens: party leaders and whips control how MPs vote and the Parliamentary legislative timetable.

Citizens have no way to hold their MPs to account. General elections are almost never about voting for your MP, but rather about voting for the next government and based on the current government’s record.

Introducing recall: the power for voters to remove their MP, would be very effective at reversing this in a way unlike any other proposed reform. It would mean MPs are truly held to account and thus make MPs more responsive to their voters and less so to the government, political party leaders and whips.

The government have proposed a recall mechanism. However theirs is dependent on a Parliamentary Committee finding an MP guilty of ‘serious wrongdoing’. True recall empowers people, not Parliamentary Committees.

Unlock Democracy is campaigning for people to have the power to recall their MP if they have lost confidence or trust in them for any reason. Whilst there should be safeguards to ensure this power is used rarely and appropriately, the clear intention is to make MPs less accountable to whips and party leaders and more accountable to voters.

A small and growing cross-party group of over forty MPs have signed Early Day Motion 1253 in support of introducing full recall powers. This is an encouraging start and we will continue to call for full recall powers to be enacted.

Steve Shaw is Parliamentary Campaigner for Unlock Democracy.

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.


  • Truly terrible idea. In most constituencies there would be continuous “recall” campaigns by rival parties and various disgruntled groups. What definitions would you have for “loss of confidence”? Simply not liking how an MP votes in the chamber is not enough. Would it be fair on people who voted for said MP, to have them sacked by people who didn’t even vote for them?

    The original plans are much better and would ensure that expenses cheats (like the Labour MPs who have already resigned this term for by elections) would be held to account.

  • How do you propose to restrict its use? After all, most MPs are elected on a minority of the vote so have over half the electorate against them from the word Go.

  • How does this work in a seat (like the one I live in) where the MP was elected with less than 40% of the vote. Of course you could win a straight up/down vote that people have lost confidence in him – because the majority never did have confidence in him!

    That goes even more so for those people elected by PR in the European Parliament/London Assembly.

    And lets not even get into the territory of voters losing confidence in their MP in Northern Ireland if there MP happens to be from the other side of the sectarian divide.

    You talk about safeguards but the bill is very light on what those are. The Returning Officer can decide to allow a recall election if an MP has “broken any promises made by him or her in an election address,”

    So how does he/she assess that? What constitutes a promise (eg my MP said in one leaflet about how he attended all community galas – but he wasn’t seen at my local one last year after the election).

    What constitutes breaking it? My Labour candidate said “I will ensure Calder Valley gets its fair share of new green technology jobs” How on earth do you assess the breaking or not of that (had she been elected)?

    You actually make the bill worse by giving the Secretary of State power to tell ROs how to make that judgement (and the bill isn’t clear whether that guidance needs Parliamentary approval – even if it does it is only the negative resolution procedure so Parliament doesn’t vote on it first!)

    All that will happen is that you will have judicial review and appeals every time a Returning Officer makes such a ruling.

    In a five year Parliament then it may happen that a politician has to go back on a promise. If they do so – and their reasons aren’t sufficient – the electorate will punish them

  • Definite no. Recall would just weight everything in favour of well-funded pressure groups able to mobilise resources to target MPs. There is a right to move an MP, it’s commonly known as an election.

    And to save anyone asking – no, I did not support the idea of a recall for Lib Dem MPs who voted for the university fee package. Student groups are more than free to campaign on the issues at election time, but pressure groups do not get to call a referendum on a single issue, targetting an MP, once they think they have a high enough media profile to get the result they want.

    A much better idea is term-limits, but I bet MPs won’t much like that.

  • Sorry, this is populist rubbish. It would mean that MPs would have to do their jobs looking over their shoulders all the time to make sure they weren’t upsetting some powerful interest group in their constituency; or getting on the wrong side of their possibly factional local party; or espousing policies opposed by Rupert Murdoch or Paul Dacre, or Brian Soutar or any other individual with enough money to mount constituency campaigns against individual MPs (and there are plenty such politically motivated multi-millionaires these days). Why would any MP in the future risk their career by campaigning for unpopular causes? Far from decreasing the power of the Whips it would mean a House of Commons full of members doing what they were told and slavishly following the party line so that they could not be singled out from the herd.

  • Hilarious to see people saying how outrageous it would be for MPs who had been elected on a minority vote to be vulnerable to recall by a majority of their constituents.

    Only a couple of months ago we were being told how wrong it was that people could become MPs on a minority vote in the first place. Do people really have so little sense of irony?

  • A different view on this subject from someone else closely linked to Unlock Democracy (albeit 2 years ago and in a personal capacity)

  • Simon McGrath 27th Jun '11 - 7:47pm

    What an appalling idea. It would make sure MPs wouldn’t support something which might be unpopular but in the country’s interests.

    A recipe for single issue groups running continous campaigns and a way of ensuring even less independent thought in the Commons

  • You say “Whilst there should be safeguards to ensure this power is used rarely and appropriately, the clear intention is to make MPs less accountable to whips and party leaders and more accountable to voters.” but this is the crucial point and one you do nothing to expand upon. How precisely could this be ensured? I can sympathise with the idea, but my worry is this would be too reactionary and short termist. I worry the effect wouldn’t be increased accountability but would rather be increased instability.

  • Thanks for the link Hywel.

    The Bill doesn’t really contain any provision that will ensure that a recall vote is a rare event. As I said earlier – reiterated by Hywel – a large number of MPs didn’t have the support of a majority of voters at the election. It’s different in the US where contests are regularly between only two candidates.

    In the example given of a promise (“I will ensure Calder Valley gets its fair share of new green technology jobs”) all that will happen is that candidates will make statements such as “I will aim to ensure…”. As long as they can say that they have written x letters and had y meetings they can claim to have kept their promise even if they have achieved nothing.

  • “all that will happen is that candidates will make statements such as “I will aim to ensure…”.”

    And election leaflets will need lawyers who understand election campaigns to draft them. Thinking about it that sounds like a damn fine idea 🙂

    Seriously… In the US the actual power is usual invested in an executive figure (governor, mayor, president). Impeachment and recall powers act as a break on executive authority as part of the checks and balances (though recall powers are quite rare).

  • Very, very difficult to implement. One side affect I can see quite easily is that, rather than carefully word promises, candidates simply won’t make any comment which could be remotely construed as a promise. Giving the decision to a Returning Officer simply would give too much power, especially where the RO is also the chief executive of the local authority – an MP might have to loudly criticise the authority and how it’s run, but if there’s the possibility of the chief executive having to make a decision on whether to recall him or not would the MP be just as inclined to campaign as strongly?

    Would it also be effective in, say, the constituency where I live – Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath – where our MP, Gordon Brown, has largely been conspicuous by his absence both in the constituency and in parliament since May 2010, hasn’t made any attempt to communicate with his voters through leaflets or through the local newspapers, and yet even in the face of the landslide to the SNP still managed to elect a Labour MSP in the roughly equivalent constituency (the only one north of the Forth)?

  • Nick (not Clegg) 28th Jun '11 - 9:09am

    “Unlock Democracy” recently conducted a poll to ask its members & supporters what issues they would like to campaign on next. Recall was one of the options.

    “Unlock Democracy” has not yet published the results of that poll (neither did it, in its list of options, indicate that it was thinking of campaigning for something quite different from the idea that an MP who had been found guilty of “serious wrongdoing” should be liable for recall).

    Now Mr Shaw tells us that “Unlock Democracy is campaigning for people to have the power to recall their MP if they have lost confidence or trust in them for any reason.”

    Unlock… what?

  • @KL

    I can see most candidates ( of all parties ) steering well clear of any kind of ‘pledges’ in the future, after the fees debacle.

    Just as well too , every candidate last year was bombarded by emails asking them to pledge to something, nearly all web generated by pressure group website visitors.
    A campaigning method that has got out of hand. I expect most candidates just deleted them rather than spend the time digging into the issue and checking party policy – hopefully using the time to canvas real voters on the doorstep.

  • Why do Unlock Democracy think that Eric Pickles should be able (without the approval of Parliament) to say in what circumstances an MP or Councillor should has lost the confidence of his/her electorate or has broken a promise?

    (Because that is what the bill does)

  • LondonLiberal 29th Jun '11 - 9:48am

    terrible, terrible idea. Scott is right when he says “You say “Whilst there should be safeguards to ensure this power is used rarely and appropriately, the clear intention is to make MPs less accountable to whips and party leaders and more accountable to voters.” but this is the crucial point and one you do nothing to expand upon.”

    Who woudl decide if a desire to recall an MP was allowed? The reality is that it is they who would would ahve sovereignty, not the people, as proponents of recall claim. what would the necessary threshold of constituents be to have a recall election? 10%? 40%? it will either be too low, wher eyou can always get that percentage of people wanting to unseat an MP, or so high as to be worthless.

    A truly ill-thought through, daft idea. If you want to see how recall produces bad governance, look at California – a nominally rich state that is basically bankrupt.

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