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Against recalls

It’s rare that I’m at odds with that über efficient mass progressive campaigning movement, 38 Degrees, but today I am.

Their latest campaign is in favour of an MP ‘recall’ system.

MPs can be sent to prison, can fiddle their expenses or break their promises and we can only get rid of them on election day.

The answer, they say, is a ‘recall’ law by which 10% of the electorate could sign a petition that forces a by-election.

I disagree with this idea for reasons of pragmatism and principle.  First, a recall law could used to hack and disrupt the political system.

For example, in 2010 there were 69,382 eligible voters in Nick Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam constituency. A 10% recall trigger would therefore be around 6,900 people. But the third placed candidate in 2010 (Jack Scott, Labour) received 8,228 votes all by himself. One could well imagine that a co-ordinated campaign, focused on forcing a by-election on Clegg and unsettling the coalition government, might look like an attractive idea for Labour, UKIP or even a splinter of (say) Euroskeptic Tories… or an unholy alliance of all those groups.

In such a situation, the 10% threshold would be easily achieved, yet this is not the kind of recall that 38 Degrees have in mind.

This brings us on to the point of principle. The appropriate time to throw Nick Clegg or any other MP out of office is at the general election. I banged on at length last week about the actual deal we make with politicians when we elect them. The arrangement is not that they do what we want all the time, but that they “fudge and compromise” on our behalf. If they do that to our satisfaction we may re-elect them. If they do not, then they get defenestrated in favour of someone else who we think might make a better pudding of the task.  The indignant campaign message presented by 38 Degrees seems to forget this.  “MP’s … break their promises, and we can only get rid of them on election day.” Well yes, that’s what election day is for!

Politicians make a big show of trying to appear ordinary.  An attempt to play football in a suit; a pulled pint in the pub.  It always looks awkward and false.  Meanwhile, we the voters express hypocritical or willfully stupid desires that our politicians ‘be like us’.  Its a silly conceit for everyone, because being a politician is quite unlike any other job.  Nowhere is this more true than in the manner of appointment.  The only thing that matters is the number of votes cast on election day.  Only in this manner do we maintain the primacy of the will of the electorate.  A recall mechanism undermines this—it is symptomatic of the consumerist mentality of the public that Evgeny Morozov laments in To Save Everythinbg, Click Here.  The demand for a recall process is essentially a demand for better customer service from our politicians, which is to make a grave category error about their role in society.

It is particularly irritating that 38 Degrees are the ones pushing this idea, because the organisation conspicuously stood on the sidelines during the Alternative Vote referendum vote in 2011.  I think a change to AV would have given MPs more legitimacy, with each newly elected representative beginning their term with gretaer support from their electorate.  It would also have allowed voters to eject poorly performing incumbents in what are currently safe seats, something that cannot happen now and might not happen when a recall system is introduced.

A final fun fact:  In theory, MPs cannot actually resign their seat!  Only death should trump the will of the electorate.  However, disgraced and tired politicians can make themselves ineligible to remain as an MP by applying to be the Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds or the Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead.  These are anacronistic non-jobs, but because they are nominally a paid office of the Crown, anyone appointed to these posts becomes ineligible to sit in parliament, and a by-election is triggered.

If the electorate cannot get rid of their representative outside of election time (as I am advocating above) I think its is only fair that the representatives cannot rid themselves of their electorate either.  Instead of introducing recall legislation, I think the government should abolish these Crown Steward & Bailiff posts, and the get-out-of-parliament free opportunity they represent.  If you cannot be sacked as an MP as you can with any other job, then you shouldn’t be able to resign, either.  Politicians like Tony Blair and David Miliband would have been forced to serve out a full parliamentary term as a Member of Parliament, rather than swanning off to better paid international gigs when the job on an MP became less attractive.  This change would probably ensure that the turn-over of MPs at election time was higher, as incumbents decline to stand again.  It would reinforce in the electorate the peculiar nature of a politician’s job.  Finally, it would mean that MPs such as Denis Macshane, Patrick Mercer and Chris Huhne would remain in parliament until the electorate chose their successor at election time, which should shock the voters into appreciating the value and importance of the election.

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