Say No to the recall of MPs!

17th June, 2013 4:45 pm

I have been surprised by the extent of media and other support, including editorially by the Guardian, for the proposal now espoused by the government for a given percentage of an MP’s constituents to be allowed to ‘recall’ him or her between elections, either ending his political career or forcing him to vacate his seat and stand for re-election in a by-election.

This whole idea seems to me misconceived.  Fear of de-selection already makes too many MPs slaves of their constituents, especially their local parties.  Lots of MPs already tend to spend too much time as untrained and unqualified social workers in their constituencies, doing work that should be done by local Councillors and social workers, at the expense of their primary jobs at Westminster — holding government to account and ensuring that the laws they pass are fit for purpose.  Fear of ‘recall’ by discontented constituents would inevitably drive MPs to spend even more of their time courting their voters’ popularity or at least trying to turn away their wrath.

Not only must MPs try to avoid de-selection (or recall, should that system be introduced) by their local parties: their careers depend on the approval of the party Whips, with their threats and bribes to compel them to vote according to their parties’ instructions, not their own best judgement and conscience.

We already see a House of Commons largely comprising automatons, lobby fodder with only rare signs of an independent spirit.  Adding the power of recall at the whim of constituents would inevitably aggravate this dismal situation.  We should remember Burke’s dictum that your MP owes you “not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”  The time to get rid of an unsatisfactory MP is when he or she stands for re-election, not at random times between elections whenever he incurs momentary unpopularity by some act of brave defiance.

A variant of the ‘recall’ proposal is that a defined percentage of an MP’s constituents should have the power to recall him or her not because of disagreement with his views as expressed in speeches or votes in parliament, but as a penalty for some kind of ‘misbehaviour’. This too seems to me a dangerous concept.  If an MP is convicted of a criminal offence of sufficient gravity (as defined by law) to warrant it, he or she should automatically lose his seat and be disqualified from standing for re-election, as is already the case.  If an MP has been found to have broken parliamentary rules of some kind but not to have broken the law, it should be up to parliament, not some arbitrary percentage of his constituents, to decide and impose an appropriate penalty, but not including expulsion from the House (which defies the judgement of his constituents who elected him).  Some arbitrary percentage of an MP’s constituents is not equipped to act as some kind of combined judge and jury, deciding on the truth of some allegation and fixing an appropriate penalty after pronouncing the accused MP guilty: even an erring MP is entitled to due process. Constituents bent on recalling their MP would anyway have only one penalty at their disposal: the blunt instrument of dismissal from parliament.  There could be no flexibility to ensure that the punishment is proportionate to the offence, a fundamental requirement of justice. Once an MP is elected, unless he commits a serious crime, he should be left to get on with it, free to risk unpopularity and controversy between elections and held to account for his record only at the next election.

Of course an MP elected as the candidate of a specific political party owes his seat and his loyalty to his party, but not when that loyalty comes into conflict with his best judgement and conscience.  The threats and bribes routinely deployed by party whips are in obvious contempt of parliament:  anyone outside parliament who attempted to bribe an MP to vote in a particular way, or who threatened to terminate his political career unless he voted this way or that, would rightly be hauled before the Bar of the House, lectured, humiliated and punished.  It would be very good discipline if the leaders and whips of the parties were made to rely on argument and persuasion to get their MPs into the desired voting lobbies, and not on blackmail.

Say No to the recall of MPs!

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