all trigger, no bullets

What we know in Britain as democracy is a clumsy and chaotic compromise position, moulded through centuries of give, take and establishment necessity. Without the structure from a written constitution, it’s been possible to grow electoral administration only as successfully as it is possible to call “gardening” the act of throwing seeds onto a pavement. Every element of our electoral and constitutional machinery is broken – from the way in which legislation is timetabled to the voting system for Town Halls. Nothing works as it should, or indeed could, and for all the talk of necessary “repair work” on that machinery, not one party leader seems willing to break out the WD40.

It’s only a few years ago that David Cameron appeared on television with his sleeves rolled up and a screwdriver in his hand. Politics was broken, and he was the emergency call-out man who could help fix it. With the formation of the Coalition, it seemed even more likely that something would be done, as after all there’s no group on these islands more obsessed with improving the democratic ills than the Liberal Democrats. Maybe, just maybe, something would actually be achieved.

And then they had to spoil it all by saying something stupid like, “It’s being considered very carefully”. This is establishment speak for “We’re not interested, go away”.

The cases of Eric Joyce, Patrick Mercer and to an extent Nadine Dorries in the jungle have brought into stark focus one of many problems which keep the 21st century United Kingdom anchored in the 19th century. The good voters of Falkirk, Newark, and Mid-Bedfordshire did not vote for their MPs to leave their parties (or for that matter the country to appear on reality television), nor did they vote for an MP to confirm he won’t stand at the next election after being arrested though would stay on as an MP, on full pay, away from his party. The people of Falkirk voted for a Labour MP, not an independent, and under our broken system they can’t do a thing about this. They can’t even protest at the next election, because Eric Joyce won’t be there to face their decision.

This situation is one amongst many cuckoo-banana realities of British democracy.

When Cameron and Clegg spoke of the “right to recall”, one of the ways these situations could be resolved, there was a sense that lessons had actually been learned. Maybe, just perhaps, “right to recall” was on its way, and Britain would be able to boot out errant MPs in-between elections.

And then, the proposals came out, and the chance collapsed like a flan in a cupboard. What the Coalition proposed was not “right to recall”, as wanted by Douglas Carswell, Zac Goldsmith and others, but a form of State-approved confirmation hearings. Rather than allowing members of the electorate to decide if an MP should be subject to a recall by-election, Nick Clegg and Tom Brake put their names to a process by which electors would have to wait for the establishment to make its own decision. Policing the police, and all that, and nothing close to how Cameron had initially voiced his determination to clean up politics.

“Right to recall” would deal with examples like Joyce, Mercer and Dennis McShane if there was a genuine will within their constituencies. There’s little to no danger of opposition supporters trying to “rig” referenda; who other than political obsessives would attempt to oust all 650 MPs? There’s plenty of clear and obvious safeguards against “rigging” – including only permitting the process to start after a resignation or under-12 month prison sentence – that fears expressed about all MPs being under constant threat sound nothing more than willing the long grass to grow.

The Clegg/Cameron approach to the “trigger” element of the process lacks exactly the power which voters need to keep their MPs in check. It’s exactly the same fault which killed off the AV referendum, boundary reviews and House of Lords reform – a lot of talk about weaponary, very little evidence of firepower.

There are so many faulty and failing elements of the British electoral system that’s it difficult to know where to start. I’d love to see a fully proportional system for electing local government, I’d love to see an end to the stubby pencil, I’d love to see votes at 16, but with every passing year it seems the UK is happy to slide back another decade into a dusty, irrelevant past. “Right to recall” is a sidestep into responsibility, maturity, and the present day. Or at least the 20th century. Let’s see it introduced properly.

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a third way

Earlier this year I likened the constitutional argument between Nick Clegg (House of Lords) and David Cameron (reducing the size of the House of Commons) to the horror film Saw, insofar as whatever one man achieves the other suffers personal/professional injury. I concluded that it would be better for the Liberal Democrats in the long term to play down House of Lords reform; the amount of damage done to the LibDems if they’re seen as obsessed with the issue will only benefit Cameron and his stirring backbenchers.

(Incidentally, Labour are now against House of Lords reform, which might come as a surprise to people).

Somewhere from the long grass is another constitutional tinkering that could be about to whack the Coalition in the face like Sideshow Bob and garden rakes. That’s the ‘right to recall’ issue, something Cameron said he supported at the height (or depth, depending on how you see it) of the expenses scandal.

Although it has been spoken of as early as April by the Leader of the House, ‘right to recall’ remains the reform that dare not speak its name. MPs were reticent to scrap 50 of their colleagues in the boundary review process so it’s not surprising that handing electors such power is down the list of priorities. It’s not as though other countries which use recall mechanisms make it easy – there’s petition chasing across the US on an almost daily basis as people rush to find millions of valid signatures. In the UK, a smaller population with smaller constituencies makes recall potentially easier to manipulate, handing the profession awkward squads (the Newspaper Comment Section Corps.) the power to play merry Hell for the sake of it.

“We should have the power to sack MPs!” is a populist move, which might persuade people to rush for a pen at the earliest opportunity. Remember, though, that the e-petition to bring back the death penalty barely registered much support at all, which dampens fears that the green ink parade will be orchestrated to chuck out any Cabinet Minister which looks at them funny.

If the push-me/pull-me games over House of Lords reform verses Reduction in the Number of MPs ends up with both defeated, ‘right to recall’ could be the compromise choice. It may have something of the gesture about it, though it’s easier to trail at either devolved assembly before being introduced at Westminster, and should see a genuine change in the attitude of MPs who think the expenses farrago has died down. Forcing a by-election in cases of criminal behaviour makes as much sense to me as chucking out of parliament lawmakers whose seat exists by virtue of a great-great-great grandfather getting into an emotional clinch with a washer-woman. General elections can be easily ‘ducked’ by MPs who don’t fancy having to face the music (as we saw with record numbers of retirements prior to 2010). The ‘right to recall’ would be almost unavoidable.

Constitutional reform is long overdue in the UK, in part because the mere mention of the administrative wheels behind the whole charade tend to make people glaze over (not just their eyes). The lack of will by any government, of any colour, is in stark contrast to the manner with which this Coalition has tried to get into the workings with spanners and hammers aloft (“spanners” is not a derogatory term meaning ‘Clegg and Cameron’, honest). That Labour, of all parties, stands against constitutional reform is jaw-slapping. That a party ‘of the workers’ chose to stand against modernising the voting system (which would give members of the public more say in who represented them in parliament, one of Labour’s founding principles) staggers me still today. The AV referendum would have been won had Labour chose to kick FPTP rather than Nick Clegg.

Lords reform may well be defeated by a bizarre combination of the now anti-reform Labour Party and backbench Conservative dinosaurs, in much the same way that reducing the size of the Commons was almost chucked out by the same tag-team of old school grumps and new breed professional politicians in Burton’s suits and safe northern constituencies. I warned the LibDems against looking like obsessives over issues like this, just in case the passion overflows. No party would lose face if, as an alternative to the bickering over the most serious reforms to our country’s governance, they helped ‘right to recall’ onto the statute books. Cameron once called for all parties to follow him in supporting the change: I wonder if he’ll now use this as his price for peace across the Cabinet table.

Right to Recall

Remember the expenses scandal? Hazel Blears waving a cheque around, duck ponds and trouser presses (“It’s a bit Alan Partridge”, said Chris Huhne, who probably wishes that was the end of the word association game connecting “MP for Eastleigh” with “controversy”.)

The aftermath flushed out all suggestions and attempts to clean up politics as though the establishment was blowing down the garden hose that had been stuffed on the tallest ledge of the shed for the best part of the year. “PR! Smaller House of Commons! An independent expenses regime! Dealing with lobbyi….Stuff!”

One of the bright ideas coming through all of this mild panic was the “right to recall”, a mechanism through which people could get their MP off the green benches and into the Job Centre…Or at least an enforced by-election of some sort. The Labour Party love “right to recall” so much that they still put it on their website – look, it’s here in their manifesto section.  And the Tories thought it was a good idea too – in April of last year they explained how right to recall might work.

Deputy PM Nick Clegg described plans for a right to recall in a Q&A session in August last year.  And now….Well…

…it’s not easily found anywhere.  The usual websites tend to fall silent on the matter, and Hansard is not an easy stamping ground for looking at where the proposal has landed. Just how long is the long grass?

“Right to recall” is a messy process if handled incorrectly, which it might just be if the proposals are given the same treatment as those to reduce the number of MPs by 50 (which I support, though the specifics of the legislation has created some absolute howler constituencies ).

Would the trigger be an official Parliamentary review? In all cases? Would Liam Fox, for example, be subject to a recall by-election if the good burghers of North Somerset were able to organise enough signatures on a website? If Parliament or an independent review decides that Mr or Mrs MP has not committed an offence even though the “court of public opinion” thinks otherwise, would a petition still be allowed?

There’s all the usual lines in the background about “turkeys”, “christmas” and “the voting for”, and of course professional troublemakers will be in their element attempting to deselect the Prime Minister for looking at them funny. (I notice the NUS has now gone very quiet over its ill-fated recall attempt for all those nasty Liberal Democrat MP, maybe the take up of their wacky scheme didn’t match their lofty ambitions?).

I hope that someone can bring back the recall scheme where it belongs, because as a powerful tool it is one of the most effective. But it needs to be properly configured, and not open to the kind of nutter magnet tendencies you see in the (otherwise flawless) e-petition scheme. Members of Parliament have not been whiter-than-white….ever…..but the mood music at the moment has no patience for wrongdoing amongst our elected masters. “Right to recall” is not a very British policy and would take a while to slot into our mindset. (It has not moved from “shouldn’t grumble” to “Whose Streets?! Our Streets?!” without any intervening period, despite the over-the-top self-promotion of the Occupy ”movement”).

“Right to recall” byelections would open up political and democratic debate, and Lord knows we need a bit more debate recently. They would be rare, of course, because the rules would require a structure that ensured it was used properly by both Parliament and the electors. Those MPs who slipped through the expenses scandal with only nips and cuts to their pride need to feel the heat of the “recall” threat – I’m a democrat, that’s my default position, and recall triggers fits very comfortably into a democratic model.

The age of the local referendum and devolved power is approaching – the Localism Act is a great tool and one which the Liberal Democrats should be rightly proud of producing. This might not be a sexy subject, but it’s important and relevant today as it was during the depths of the expenses scam.

But until someone pokes the Cabinet Office to remind them about this policy, one wonders if it’ll ever be enacted? What’s that people say about the more things change…..