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…..

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news of the screws

When the on-line world exploded into hurried and manic hysteria over footballers and their unruly bedroom hopping, easily banded about words and phrases bounced around social media sites in a frenzy of keyboard tapping. “Freedom of speech,” said some. “Right to know!”.

Tabloid journalism has not always been so salacious or controversial. The British press changed, for good and for ever, around 1968 with Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the News of the World and, one year later, The Sun. The rest, as they say, is pretty much history. The more these red-tops and others like it became more sensational, scandalous, gossip-driven, an increased desire to read more stories like it grew amongst the general public. “Freedom of speech,” came back the reply whenever shocking content blared out from the newsagents shelves – photos of Princess Diana at the gym? Right to know. Readers like this sort of thing. We want to know. And, deep down, we all probably did.

After all, said the blokes down the Cricketers Arms, the tabloids are decent enough for the footie and some tits on Page 3, tomorrow’s chip-paper doesn’t have any lasting harm on those in the public eye. “Right to know!” cry us all when politicians are hauled up for their shortcomings, or one television celebrity is found cheating on another. One industry fuels another, and at massive profits for all sides, the chase for more and more headlines for increasing readers and advertising money is an insatiable rush. Drugs provide lesser hits than the journalists need for one more story above his colleagues and rivals.

Last night, the Guardian reported that News of the World journalists hacked into – and deleted messages from – the mobile phone of missing girl Milly Dowler . Condemnation has been, by and large, across the spectrum. To hack into the mobile phones of politicians, singers, footballers – that was something, one level of questionable behaviour, morally dubious, stupid behaviour for which resignations must follow. We all tutted and shook our heads.

This new revelation goes beyond “morally dubious”. If as true as reported, the acts of those involved are nigh-on depraved (and potentially perverting the course of justice). Milly Dowler’s parents took the removal of voicemail messages as a sign, however small, that their daughter was still alive. It is beyond all reasonable considerations for most sane, rounded individuals that anybody could consider the deleting of messages to be justified in the search of a story.

We are, let us admit and concede, all hungry for scandal, shock, something new in the ongoing storylines of life. When I blogged about the celebrity injunctions earlier this year, search terms “injunction footballer” and “footballer named on Have I Got News For You” landed people here in the desperate search for the identity of the man involved. Despite the outrage over paparazzi behaviour, the death of Diana, hounding of her children, sales for Royal Wedding special editions soared. The “public interest” excuse feeds the tabloids, and the tabloids feed us.

The Milly Dowler revelations reach far beyond anything connected with a journo’s desire for an exclusive. This may be the product of the twisted relationship between public and press, but that cannot be used as even fleeting justification. Plain wrong, from top to bottom, now would be a very good time for somebody with Government (Mssrs Hunt, Cameron, Cable, we look to you) to ensure News International are blocked from gaining any more ground on the UK’s media market. This episode was bleak enough; the stench of distaste should not permeate any further.