Julian Huppert writes: Workable real recall

House of Commons. Crown Copyright applies to this photo - http://www.flickr.com/photos/uk_parliament/4642915654/Scandals such as those around MP’s expenses led to calls for legislation to allow MPs who had behaved badly to be recalled, so that their electorate could have a prompt chance to give a verdict on the wrongdoing. To this end, we promised in our manifesto to allow for recalls for MPs who had committed ‘serious misconduct’. The Tories promised the same, and Labour offered recall for ‘financial misconduct’.

I believe that that is the right thing to do, and is the reasoning for the Recall of MPs Bill, currently before the House of Commons. It passed its second reading unanimously last week, and the details are being debated in a Committee of the Whole House today.

The government proposal allows MPs to be subject to recall if they have either been found guilty of a criminal offence and sentenced to imprisonment, or if they have been suspended from the House for more than 21 days as part of a punishment from the Committee on Standards. Someone then has to collect signatures on a petition from 10% of the electorate – and then there is a new election. The recalled MP has the chance to restand and make their case to the electorate if they wish.

This has quite reasonably been criticised for being too tight. Accusations of MPs ‘marking their own homework’ have been levelled at it, and I share the concern that the public will not accept the idea that a Committee that largely consists of MPs should be the body to decide whether MPs can be subject to recall. What if they just protect their own?

Multi-millionare Zac Goldsmith has been leading the push for an alternative approach – something he calls ‘Real Recall’, which would allow MPs to be recalled on any grounds at all, at any time. While superficially attractive, this would in fact be a bonanza for wealthy interests, who could – on purely party political or sectional grounds – attempt time and again to dispatch MPs from their seats.

If a vocal minority could continually subject MPs to the huge financial and political cost of seeing off repeated recall attempts, principled positions on, say, same-sex marriage, abortion, or assisted dying would be become all but impossible to sustain, except for MPs with access to very high funding levels.  This “fire at will” scheme threatens a chilling effect on MPs’ capacity to lead public opinion and recognise social change. It doesn’t give power to constituents, it gives it to well-funded people and organisations.

It would also allow for ‘sore loser’ elections, where a party that narrowly lost seats could keep trying to recall MPs until they won the seats back. That’s not what any of us want to see!

In addition the Goldsmith proposals would actually make it harder for MPs who have done something very wrong to be recalled. His system is extremely complex and long-winded. It requires a petition first, signed by 5% of the electorate, and then a set of signatures from 20% of the electorate in order to trigger a referendum on whether there should be a recall, requiring a 50% majority to unseat the MP.  Only then would there be a by-election.  Apart from the huge public cost of running such a process, this means that even an MP jailed for a serious criminal offence could stay on for months and months while all these hurdles are reached.

It seems perverse to me to try to make it harder to recall someone who has been jailed for a criminal offence, but make it easy to have repeated efforts to recall just because there are people in their constituency who voted for someone else.

So what is the solution? How do we make sure to cover all serious misconduct, and avoid the idea of MP’s judging themselves, so the public have the power?

David Heath and I have been leading a group working on a way to do this. We want to add a third trigger for a recall, so the public can bypass criminal conviction or a committee of MPs, and go straight to a completely independent third party – such as an election court – in order to begin recall in cases of real misconduct.  Subjects covered could be very broad, and for example could include financial impropriety, abuse of position, continual failure to attend Parliament without reasonable excuse, and neglect of basic duties.  We have tabled amendments to be debated today to demonstrate how this could be done, although as someone who is not a constitutional lawyer, I daresay they can be improved. I am however delighted that Labour and Conservative backbenchers have already signed our amendments.

If a totally independent, non-parliamentary “filter” can be established, the recall process can be people-led and politician-free.  Our Lib Dem proposals are more accessible for citizens than those Goldsmith advocates:  we would stick with a low, single, achievable 10% trigger for Recall on grounds of serious misconduct.  That surely is “real recall”, putting errant MPs in the hands of their electorate, without snuffing out the Burkean duty of elected representatives to use their judgement.


* Julian Huppert was the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge from 2010-15

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  • As soon as you read “..a completely independent third party…”, you just know that is the point where establishment stitch up begins?
    No. Zac Goldsmith’s option is the one to go with, which has the only real public accountability, and indeed is the route that Ukip via Carswell supports.
    These cynical attempts at Liberal elite stitch up are what got you to 7% rating. Are you never going to learn that the public has had enough of your tricks, ever designed to obfuscate and block political accountability?
    And while we’re at it [speaking of cynical tricks], was there a good reason to pre-fix Zac Goldsmith with “Multi millionaire”?

  • Surely 10% would make it easier in some and not in others? Will a certain amount of recalls per whatever party in office amount to government being taken over?

  • Why restrict this to MP’s. How about Police and Crime Commissioners..

  • Repeated recall is just a pain isn;t it?

    I mean, look at California. They have a low 12% requirment, no requiremnt for the subject of the petition to have committed any misconduct whatsoever and as a result has been subjected to hassle, expense and general annoyance one recall election in its 164 years as state.

    God forbid such yo yo politics were inflicted on us, eh?

  • It doesn’t give power to constituents, it gives it to well-funded people and organisations.

    Only if you think that the British electorate are sheep who will sign anything a newspaper or well-funded advertising campaign tells them to.

    And if you think that, why are you a Democrat? If the people are that stupid and easily led, why do you trust them to vote at all?

    If you think that MPs should ‘lead public opinion and recognise social change’ (translation: do things the electorate don’t want them to, for the electorate’s own good) then why bother to go through the pretence of having elections? For each issue simply appoint a committee of right-thinking experts, and implement whatever policy they come up with.

    I mean, we all know Liberal Democrats think that they are more intelligent than the electorate they claim to represent, but this is the most plainly I’ve ever seen one of them state it.

  • There are many things I’m not happy about this. I think the whole approach being taken is misguided. To me the approach should be based more on employment disciplinary process rather than an all or nothing court style recall process. Particularly as there seems to be some confusion as to whether recall is for “real misconduct” or “serious misconduct” and just what exactly grounds these terms encompass.

    I think we should have a relatively low signature threshold – say 5%, to initiate the disciplinary process – namely permit the claims to be formally put and heard and for the MP (or other elected person) to respond. If the out come is unsatisfactory then a further 5% are required to initiate the court style process; unless the MP treated the proceedings with contempt. Note this approach permits an MP to state their case and apologise and then continue as the MP (potentially getting re-elected), whereas the more confrontational court-style approach makes it much harder to restore an amicable working relationship.

    The other major concern is achieving the signature requirement, putting to one side the obvious question about collecting signatures (in my constituency 10% is approximately 7,000 signatures), if the requirement is for these signatories to be members of the electorate then this implies they are registered voters. The problem here is that only the authorities (and credit reference agencies) have access to the full unabridged electoral register and we don’t really want to be giving out the unabridged register to any one who asks. So we actually need some mechanism in place that doesn’t require significant input from the authorities that permits campaign groups to collect signatures and have them validated.

  • Julian Tisi 27th Oct '14 - 1:33pm

    I think Julian is broadly right. The bar is set too high with the current recall bill going through Parliament, but Zac Goldsmith sets the bar far too low – and for the reasons Julian says, the “real recall” proposal is open to abuse. It would be open to sore losers recalling in a marginal seat if opinion polls went their way. It would also prevent MPs from raising contraversial issues, like gay marriage for example.

    Whatever the grounds for recall, I think they need to be clear as to what would or would not constitute a breach for which an MP could be recalled. That would be fair and less open to abuse.

  • So we actually need some mechanism in place that doesn’t require significant input from the authorities that permits campaign groups to collect signatures and have them validated

    Is this not already done for the signatures required to be a candidate in local and general elections? I mean yes that’s only ten signatures, but it means there must in principle be a system for validating them, which could presumably be operated on a larger scale if necessary.

    the “real recall” proposal is open to abuse. It would be open to sore losers recalling in a marginal seat if opinion polls went their way. It would also prevent MPs from raising contraversial issues, like gay marriage for example.

    I find it hard to see how, in a democratic system, voters expressing their wishes can possibly be labelled ‘abuse’.

    After all, if an MP is sure that their actions are acceptable to a majority of the electorate, then they have no need to fear a recall vote as they will simply stand i, and win, the ensuing by-election.

    And if they suspect that their actions are not acceptable to a majority of the electorate — that they might lose a by-election — then perhaps they should rethink them?

  • (One does wonder, when a Lib Dem MP and in fact this particular MP in this particular University-city seat, raises these particular objections, whether their motives are not entirely selfless — in that they may realise that, had such a mechanism existed in 2011, they quite possibly would have fallen victim to it and the slaughter of Lib Dem MPs currently scheduled for next May would have come even sooner.)

  • Understandably-fake 27th Oct '14 - 3:56pm

    I am not sure there is currently a strong process for checking nominating signatures; I was distinctly surprised to find, reading the board outside the polling station at the 2013 local election, that I had apparently nominated the local UKIP council candidate. A friend of mine reported this to the police, and after four months the man pleaded guilty: http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/Arbury-UKIP-candidate-Hugh-Mennie-charged-forging-signatures-election-nomination-form/story-22363719-detail/story.html for the charge, http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/UKIP-candidate-Hugh-Mennie-admits-forging-election-signatures-Cambridge-claims-did-Arbury-islacklustre-politics/story-22364005-detail/story.html for the plea.

  • I am not sure there is currently a strong process for checking nominating signatures; I was distinctly surprised to find, reading the board outside the polling station at the 2013 local election, that I had apparently nominated the local UKIP council candidate

    Depends what you mean by ‘validating’, I suppose: the signatures were presumably validated in the sense of checking that they corresponded to real electors, which I thought was the issue.

    For the other type of validation, checking that the real electors’ names were not being used without their permission, presumably recall petitions would be public thus allowing electors to check both that their name was present if they wished it to be, and that it was not present if they did not wish it to be.

  • “And if they suspect that their actions are not acceptable to a majority of the electorate — that they might lose a by-election — then perhaps they should rethink them?”

    Indeed. That David Steel shouldn’t have been speaking out on opposing apartheird rugby tours and legalising abortion whilst representing a marginal, rugby loving, slightly religiously conservative constituency. For example

  • That David Steel shouldn’t have been speaking out on opposing apartheird rugby tours and legalising abortion whilst representing a marginal, rugby loving, slightly religiously conservative constituency. For example

    Except that he did win elections in that constituency, so clearly his views were acceptable to a majority of his electorate, weren’t they?

  • Well by about 500 in 1970. And 42% of the vote so not a majority of support.

    But you miss the point about recall votes targeting MPs for political views. They can be used by (organised) groups that represent a minority opinion to target (and dissuade) MPs from advocating unpopular (but right causes).

    Think abortion (both POVs), gay rights in the 70s/80s, support for the EU now, campaigning against page 3 (qv Clare Short) etc etc.

    If you are an MP elected on 35% of the vote then there is a huge group of people to work on who NEVER supported you – before you even get to their views on a particular issue.

  • James – in response to your comment further up:

  • You asked for an example – but not an anecdote. I was a bit conflicted 🙂

    Weren’t you anti recall powers back in 2009-ish. Perfectly reasonable to change your mind in the years since but I remember reading someone making very strong arguments – particularly around how recall powers would be compatible with minority PR systems like STV

    In passing how would recall powers work with list MPs or Assembly members who could only have been elected with 10-15% of the vote. It would have been pretty easy to have got a recall vote against Nick Griffin I bet.

  • So it appears that Westminster has predictably voted to keep accountability ‘in house’, with their preferred *Stitch Up Recall*

  • There seem to be two entirely different aims being pursued here:

    The Goldsmith approach is to enable electors who don’t like something “their” MP is doing (bearing in mind that most electors have not voted for the MP who represents them) to be able, if there are enough of them, to force the MP out.

    The LibDem/Tory approach is mainly to enable electors to force out MPs who have been found guilty of serious criminal or civil misconduct.

    Both are perfectly rational approaches, and it’s not helpful for supporters of one approach to accuse supporters of the other of hypocrisy and stitch-up.

    As for me, quite simply, I believe in the process of representative democracy, where we elect our representatives every 4 or 5 years, and then let them get on with it until the next elections come round. The accountability lies in our being able to throw them out at the next election. However, I do believe that it should only be possible to override this cycle of accountability, by recalling an MP, where the MP has committed some serious abuse that has been established by due legal process.

    That is broadly achieved by the present parliamentary proposals, but Julian believes we can widen their scope while retaining the basic principle that recall should only be possible where the MP is found guilty, by due legal process, of an abuse.

    As usual, Julian is taking a principled position, and is applying his very considerable intelligence to it. I hope he’s successful – and I’m sure he’ll get a lot more abuse for his efforts.

  • Nigel Jones 29th Oct '14 - 2:28pm

    Well done Julian.
    Your proposal, while as you say not yet being legally watertight and correct, is along the right lines. We definitely need something where the public can be the trigger, but not for party political, purely personal or trivial reasons.
    It also needs to be as simple a process as possible.

  • Neil Sandison 29th Oct '14 - 3:55pm

    Having watched the debate it was clear that Zac Goldsmith did not command a consensus within the house for his amendment across all the parties .indeed it was unclear how it could have been practically implimented and would have been wide open for legal challenge by an agreived MP.

  • Matt (Bristol) 3rd Nov '14 - 12:28am

    Can someone please explain how any scheme of individual recall would work if we did ever adopt multimember STV for general elections as the party wants to? I like aspects of both, but just don’t see how the 2 are compatible. Am I thick?

  • I don’t think you can. James suggests above having all previous candidates restand – so in effect you have a genuine rerun. I don’t really see how that is possible – most fundamentally there could have been deaths in the interim or people might have left the party they were a candidate in the interim, taken up a politically restricted job or just not want to stand,

  • Matt (Bristol) 3rd Nov '14 - 1:02am

    Right, Hywel, so in supporting an admittedly attractive but newly fashionable agenda, we’re crippling the chance of securing one of our long-held aims. Good strategy there, guys.

  • John Roffey 3rd Nov '14 - 5:02am

    Matt (Bristol) 3rd Nov ’14 – 1:02am

    Why do Party members believe that ‘long-held aims’ are sacrosanct? It was pretty clear that there is no real appetite for change by the electorate after the AV Referendum – can’t these aims be dropped in the face of reality?

    If a ‘True Recall’ system had been put in place, where the electorate could kick out their MP at any time they chose – the voters of Sheffield Hallam might have kicked NC out by now and the Party would not be facing extinction.

    ‘Recall’ is not just fashionable it is desperately needed to weed out some of the worst MPs and to give the people some way of halting the advance of a corrupt government. Think how much of the nation’s assets and wealth has been transferred to rich party backers that has left so many desperately poor and in hugely stressful circumstances!

    Can’t the Party simply drop all of its ‘long held aims’ at the end of each parliament – and then start again to ensure that the policies that are being pursued are relevant to the reality of now.

    By cluttering up the Party with these aims – the energies and focus of the Party is dissipated away from vital issues of today like climate change, the environment and child abuse.

  • matt (Bristol) 3rd Nov '14 - 9:06am

    John Roffey, I might well agree with you – STV is not sacrosanct to me and right now I would accept LV as a change to the system – but the key point is you cannot go on saying one thing and then proposing something else which is incompatible without reference to that fact; and I am seeing nobody at Westminster from the Party point out the incompatibilities between the 2 systems.

    If we go for recall, if our MPs vote for recall, we are effectively giving up on multimember STV (note that nuance) at least for a long season. What then are we fofering innstead, or are we giving up on reform of the electoral system?

  • Malcolm Todd 3rd Nov '14 - 9:55am

    matt (Bristol)
    “right now I would accept LV as a change to the system”

    Heavens, do luncheon vouchers even exist now? However bad the polls, I don’t think we should sell our suffrage for 15p a day tax-free…

  • John Roffey 3rd Nov '14 - 10:03am

    What you say is true Matt, but presently there is no rhyme nor reason to the policies that the Party is proposing apart from the fact that they must not clash too much with the policies that the Tory’s are proposing – so that another coalition is easily formed without another ‘tuition fees’ incident.

    The Party’s stance on reform of the electoral system, as far as I can see, is whatever the Tories want.

  • matt (Bristol) 3rd Nov '14 - 10:34am

    John, whilst I am sympathetic to what you say, to me you undermine your argument by beginning this digression by calling for a manifesto ‘clean sheet’ every parliament. Surely that would just enable more of the kind of centrism and triangulation you end up by condemning?

    But obviously we seem to agree on my main point.

  • matt (Bristol) 3rd Nov '14 - 10:40am

    Malcolm, don’t speak such an idea even in jest – John Redwood or similar might be reading.

  • John Roffey 3rd Nov '14 - 10:49am

    matt (Bristol) 3rd Nov ’14 – 10:34am

    I suppose my post was, to a fair extent, influenced by the latest IPCC report.

    To my mind all policies that were not vital to confronting this issue are somewhat superfluous.

  • matt (Bristol) 3rd Nov '14 - 12:23pm

    John, in which case why did you post on this thread about what is to you a ‘superfluous’ issue?

  • John Roffey 3rd Nov '14 - 12:59pm

    I think that ‘True Recall’ might be a vital issue in getting the necessary action on Climate Change.

    Our ruling elite is controlled by the bankers and multinational and one of the most powerful groups within these is the oil industry. It is the oil industry which is most against our eliminating the use of fossil fuels – as might be expected.

    Climate change is something the people can understand in the broadest terms and I am inclined to believe that they would wish to make the necessary sacrifices to significantly reduce the use of fossil fuels asap and would ‘recall’ MPs [if this were available] who were lobbyists for the industry if they tried to block the necessary legislation.

  • matt (Bristol) 4th Nov '14 - 11:19am

    Sorry for not replying John – I guess we just differ – I see constitutional change as an end in itself, you see it as a means to an end.

    I think that constant rebuilding of the manifesto from the ground up as you suggest is not helpful for the public trying to understand what a party stands for – either way, if the party really wants recall, it needs to consider its impact on its proposals for STV (single member STV would work, though, but surely wouldn’t be as proportional).

  • Goldsmith’s proposal doesn’t set a bar. It sets three bars. The first one is low, and does open up the risk of perpetual recall efforts. The experience in other countries doesn’t much matter: the question is what would happen here with a completely different democratic structure, and a completely different political culture.

    I guess our political culture in the UK is rather more tolerant than the US has been recently. But that might not be the case for long, given the mismatch between FPTP and the breadth of support more than two parties. At least five different parties have achieved more than 10% support in national elections for MPs and MEPs during my lifetime, and you can throw the SNP into the mix, too. While the situation in Northern Ireland is much improved recently, a spate of opportunist recalls could significantly sour relations.

    There’s another really odd thing about Goldsmith’s proposal. While it contains no requirement to have good grounds, there is a requirement to write a reason on the petition. Presumably that reason would take the form of some kind of allegation: does the allegation need to be true? If it isn’t, can the MP sue for libel? If s/he wins, is the recall invalidated? Not according to the proposals.

    Julian’s proposal deals with that: all the paths to recall would be unambiguous. The MP would have to have a judgement of some sort recorded against them. I’d like to add another path: expulsion from their political party.

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