There is a general welcome for legislation to allow the recall of MPs announced in the Queen’s Speech. There is also a campaign email doing the rounds to say that the planned recall proposals do not go far enough. So today I am inviting comments on how a decent recall system could and should work.
The first issue to sort out is what is recall for? It should be a facility if an MP has behaved badly in ways which damage his work as an MP for the constituency. It should not be a chance to re-run the election in any given seat because people did not like the result. An MP who does the job should be able to do it until the next election, when people have the chance to persuade others to change the MP for political or other reasons.
The problem is how do you define bad behaviour. If the MP is convicted of murder or rape then we would all agree he can no longer represent the constituency and will go to jail. Of course there should be recall, though under the current system there would also be resignation followed by a by election in such circumstances. If an MP has to pay a parking or speeding fine then that would not presumably be a cause for them to face recall. Somewhere in between the different levels of lawbreaking lies a cut off point which the new law will enforce and lead to recall where the line has been crossed.
Bad behaviour does have to be proven. A system which allowed anyone to trump up an allegation against an MP they did not like and then force recall would create lots of by elections where the individual was innocent.
More difficult is bad political behaviour. Some constituents think an MP should face recall for breaking his or her word or reneging on promises made in an election. Tempting though this is, it could prove difficult to enforce and would probably lead to parties and candidates declining to make any promises at all that could later force their resignation.
Let us take the case of the Lib Dem promise to oppose tuition fees in the 2010 election. It was a clear promise. In the circumstances of coalition it was a Lib Dem Secretary of State who presided over the development and implementation of a tuition fee system. Should there have been 56 by elections immediately that happened, with a possible change of government and a period of instability? Or is the change of circumstance and the formation of coalition sufficient reason to change a party’s stance?
The issue also arises of who settles whether an MP or party has broken its word sufficiently to justify recall? Some say if a given proportion of an electorate demand a recall there should be one. In a marginal seat there might be 10% of the electors who feel very partisan in favour of the main losing candidate. Should they have the right to demand a re-run at the worst time for the incumbent MP?
Recall is a popular idea but the problems lie in the detail of how it would work. The fact that there has to be an election every five years at the longest means no-one is lumbered with a rotten MP indefinitely, if their neighbours agree with their judgement.