The UKIP victory in this month’s Clacton by-election; the close shave for Labour in Heywood and Middleton and the Scottish referendum vote, where complacency almost cost us the Union, have been met with handwringing promises about listening to voters’ anger.
But listening is not an end in itself. It is what we do that matters. So it is depressing that one of the first pieces of legislation MPs are voting on after the summer represents yet another broken promise. Before the last election, all three main parties pledged to introduce a right of recall to make MPs more accountable to their constituents. The aim was to demonstrate tangibly that we were serious about strengthening accountability. The hope was this might help to restore some faith in politics and politicians
Yet the Government’s Recall Bill is little more than a sham that offers only the illusion of greater accountability. Rather than putting more power in the hands of the public, it will put it into the hands of a cabal of MPs who alone will get to decide the fate of those they rub shoulders with in the tea room every day. Except when an MP is sent to jail, recall will need MPs’ permission. It is exactly the kind of cynical stitch-up that makes voters so angry with us. Worse, it gives the impression that politicians are denying the public more power because we don’t trust them to use it responsibly. How then can they begin to trust us again?
Opponents of what we are calling ‘proper’ recall have tried to scare MPs with the prospect of vexatious campaigns from powerful special interests. But the system that those of us supporting Zac Goldsmith’s amendments are advocating is robust. It would require 5% of constituents to sign a notice of intent before a formal petition was launched. 20% of voters would have to sign that petition – in person, not online – to trigger a recall referendum. More than half of those voting in the referendum would have to vote in favour for there to be a by-election. The chances of a purely malicious attempt to oust an MP overcoming all these hurdles is virtually non-existent.
The truth is that we in Parliament are regarded as a special interest group ourselves. The MPs’ expenses scandal; phone hacking; the Hillsborough cover-up – all this has served to reinforce the public’s view of a cosy Establishment that protects itself and doesn’t have to play by the same rules as everybody else.
Recall will not heal the disconnect that people feel. It is no substitute for getting out into the community, delivering on the local issues that matter people, and showing that you are prepared to engage on the really difficult issues, like immigration, that politicians often shy away from. In Barking it took us 4 years of working furiously to reconnect with local people before we were able to regain trust and see off the attempt by the BNP to exploit people’s legitimate grievances for their own fascist purposes.
Recall is a step in the right direction. People who currently feel they have no stake in our democracy will know that there is a meaningful recourse for those who feel let down by their MP – an alternative to simply withdrawing from the political process or turning to extremist parties like the BNP.
MPs should be in no doubt: our politics is broken. I urge colleagues to join those of us who are voting for proper recall in the hope that we can start to fix it.
Margaret Hodge is the Labour MP for Barking and Chair of the Public Accounts Committee