The Maria Miller affair shows we need the right to recall MPs

Politics is not a one every five years business. Democracy shouldn't be either.

It was reported early this morning that culture secretary Maria Miller had resigned. Not because she was sorry for her behaviour during the investigation into her parliamentary expenses, but because she felt the issue had become a ‘distraction’ from the work of the government.

This is a very important distinction.

Now that the ‘distraction’ is gone (Miller has been replaced as culture secretary by Sajid Javid) the government will presumably try to move on. Until the next scandal that is, because there will invariably be one, whether the current coalition or a Labour government is in power.

Rather than carrying on as if we’ve just witnessed a one-off aberration, however, now is the time to look at reforming the political system so that the electorate (rather than the government) has the power to hold to account those MPs who are believed to have transgressed.

There has been talk of making the body which passes judgement on MP’s expenses fully independent; but as Tory MP Zac Goldsmith has put it, there is already such a body: it’s called the electorate. At present, as Goldsmith also observes, “an MP could break all pre-election promises, switch Party, refuse to see constituents, all without qualifying for Recall”.

This simply cannot be allowed to continue.

The surge in support for Nigel Farage is in part down to a deep-rooted disillusionment with the political class, and while that reached it’s apogee in 2009 at the height of the expenses scandal, it has undoubtedly been exacerbated in recent years by the failure of parliament to sufficiently clean up the system in light of the scandal.

What’s needed now is meaningful reform whereby constituents can take action when MPs are believed to have behaved inappropriately. They should not have to wait for a General Election or for the PM to punish the Member in question.

Proper Right to Recall reform would mean that if an agreed percentage of constituents signed a bill calling for an MP to be recalled then a referendum would have to be held. No ifs not buts.

Unfortunately the government’s 2011 proposed draft Reform Bill falls way short of this, and would do little more than empower a Parliamentary Committee to decide if an MP qualifies for recall. In practice that would still leave decision-making power in the hands of MPs. It would also allow committees to potentially use their role to punish independent-minded MPs.

What we need is something more radical.

A proper reform bill would:

  • give the electorate the power to deselect MPs who failed to perform their duties or got embroiled in scandals around expenses;
  • do so without having to wait one, two, or even five years for a General Election;
  • increase accountability and democratisation as a result.

Apart from self interest, it’s hard to see what’s stopping MPs from implementing a bill on the right to recall. According to a 2012 YouGov poll, 79 per cent of the electorate would support the measure. Three-fifths even thought the rule should apply to MPs who failed to respond to their constituents’ correspondence.

A greater electoral boost than the Maria Miller scandal could hardly have been delivered to Nigel Farage – the anti-politics politician – if it had been served up on a skewer with Burmese sauce. Indeed, disengagement with the political class is at an all time high. According to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the UK has the lowest level of voter participation in Europe (see graph)*.

A first step in addressing this would be to transfer further power to the electorate. Right to Recall would communicate that, if you really believe politicians are “all the same” or “in it for themselves” (two increasingly common refrains), then this is what you can do to change things.

Instead of relying on MPs to police other MPs, we should grant that power to the electorate – and not simply once every five years. Politics is not a one every five years business, and nor should democracy be.


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