Why accountability bill offers little more than token recall
In a nation where most MPs and governments represent people who would have preferred someone else, is the Recall Bill just a recipe for chaos?
The government’s Recall Bill, promoted as a means of improving the accountability of MPs to their constituents, received backing from all sides of the House this week following a debate. In reality, though, there are few circumstances in which local opinion of a Parliamentarian’s behaviour will come to bear in deciding their fate.
Under current rules, MPs are disqualified from Parliament if they are jailed for more than 12 months. Under the new rules, a jail sentence of less than 12 months or a suspension by House of Commons authorities for 21 days or more would make a recall petition possible. If 10% of voters in the relevant constituency signed that petition, then a by-election would be held in which the misbehaving MP would be entitled to stand.
That is hardly a radical reshaping of the political system. And for some MPs, led by Zac Goldsmith, the rules need to go much further. Goldsmith has gone so far as to suggest that any MP who has lost the confidence of the majority of his or her electorate should be subject to a by-election. Setting aside the practicalities of getting sufficient active support against an MP on that basis, that would put virtually every MP in the House under threat – even Zac Goldsmith himself, who won his seat with 49.71% of the vote last time out.
The UK political system is such that most constituency MPs and most governments represent a population whose majority would have preferred someone else. And few politicians would want the chaos and cost that would come from petitions being organised in so many constituencies. Frank Dobson is among those arguing against any strengthening of the Bill, on the grounds that principled MPs who are providing their constituencies with strong leadership on divisive issues would automatically be put at risk.
So, if the Bill passes as it stands, what will change? Not much, probably. Proposed in the wake of the expenses scandal and in response to public distaste about the conduct of certain politicians, the text simply provides the public with an opportunity to rubber stamp the inevitable exit of an MP. Few Parliamentarians survive a spell in jail or a long suspension from the House to retain their seat, and most resign rather than face certain defeat at the ballot box.
Accountability may be better served if a by-election were immediately triggered by an MP’s legal wrongdoing under the more stringent definitions being proposed. Rather than playing a token early part in a prolonged process, voters could then immediately express their views at the ballot box. Ironically, this is one area where representative democracy setting more stringent rules would be more powerful and practical than attempting to help citizen democracy express the will of the people.
Jon Bennett is managing director of corporate communications consultancy Linstock Communications.
For more on accountability, pick up a copy of Dr Peter Fuda’s Leadership Transformed.
Image of Zac Goldsmith courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.