One possible positive that may be garnered out of the debate yesterday on the Recall of MPs Bill is the fact that the debate is even happening at all is tacit acknowledgment within the Westminster that something has gone wrong with the system.
But it was of no surprise that Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith’s proposals, which would have excluded Parliament’s standards committee from any role in determining whether errant MPs should face re-election, was defeated – it is entirely within character that MPs would be somewhat reluctant to support reducing their powers with enthusiasm. It therefore was of some amusement the naive astonishment shown in some quarters on social media at MPs unwilling to give up powers.
All of this though misses the point. The debate regarding the recall of MPs is Westminster talking to itself – the proposal nothing more than a tinkering around the edges while in effect maintaining the status quo. Very much a politician’s solution then…
Unwittingly Zac Goldsmith betrays this view in his arguments in favour of his proposals by trying to persuade MPs and Ministers that they have nothing to fear from recall decided by the people because it would very rarely be used:
The third concern relates to the fear that Members would face endless recall attempts, amounting almost to a form of harassment, an issue raised several times in last week’s debate. I see no need for a limit, as the experience of recall around the world shows that its use is extremely rare and that it is used only in extreme circumstances. In 100 years of recall in the United States, where there are virtually no financial controls or controls on broadcasters and so on, it has happened only 20 times. There have been 40 recall referendums…
This argument has the backing of Douglas Carswell:
Far from leading to a flood of vexatious attempts to remove sitting MPs, this second stage makes it almost impossible to oust a sitting MP on partisan grounds. Note how few recall attempts have ever been successful in California.
In other words, vote for this measure because it won’t make any difference at all. It’s a … er … curious argument to make for a democratic device to say the least.
It’s safe to assume that the great expenses scandal of 2009/10 is a cloud hanging over the recall debate, with examples such as Labour MP Margaret Moran going into hiding leaving her constituents unrepresented and they having no means to force a by-election.
Yet it is with some irony that the expenses scandal actually show up the ineffectiveness recall would have. While there was a lot of public anger, further provoked by MPs’ attempts to prevent disclosure under Freedom of Information, voters did not punish them electorally in 2010.
Many MPs (and over 50% sought re-election) who were embroiled in the financial scandal were still re-elected in the 2010 election. Take Alistair Darling for example, who abused taxpayer’s money by ‘flipping’ his two houses four times was re-elected in 2010 with an increased majority.
As this report from 2011 finds, titled “Electoral Accountability and the UK Parliamentary Expenses Scandal: Did Voters Punish Corrupt MPs?” the expenses scandal came low down voters’ priorities. This chimes with my own experience as a PPC in 2010 when the subject was never raised once on the doorstep nor in hustings.
The report finds instead that there was only a modest 1.5% voting impact on MPs implicated:
We find that implicated MPs received a vote share about 1.5 percentage points lower than non-implicated MPs (after controlling for incumbency, region, and previous constituency results). Intriguingly, we do not nd an association between vote share and either the amount the MP claimed in expenses or the amount an MP was required to repay…
The findings may not be so surprising when we consider that the representative ballot is a blunt instrument to deal with the complexities of voters’ concerns such as the economy, immigration and of course partisan competition. Thus the report comes to an interesting conclusion:
The degree to which voters punished individual MPs for expenses abuses (a drop in vote share of about 1.5% on average) is modest in comparison to voters’ responses to corruption in the US and other settings, but the lower magnitude seems reasonable given the fact that most British MPs have few individual powers and British voters have no other opportunity to express a party preference at the national level.
The findings thus illustrate the fact that the degree to which electoral accountability can constrain individual politicians depends on political institutions including the electoral system, separation of powers, and legislative organization.
A better example of why recall won’t work would be hard to find and further demonstration that something far more radical is need to grap MPs by their goolies – The Harrogate Agenda.