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MP recall is a populist gesture that cheapens our democracy

5 June 2014

10:58 AM

5 June 2014

10:58 AM

Anger is a bad counsellor. A lot of voters are angry with MPs and want to punish them. They believe that during the recent economic crisis, many MPs had only one priority: to fatten their expenses claims. Such voters have only one complaint about the proposed recall bill. They would like it to be tougher.

All this is unfair, inaccurate and damaging. The vast majority of MPs – in all parties – are dedicated and diligent. They came into politics to do good. At least on the Tory side, many of them are making financial sacrifices in order to stay in Parliament. MPs are not well-paid.

Moreover, if your conditions of employment require you to live in two places, one of which is London, a £2000 per month subsidy is hardly excessive. It is true that over the years, the arrangements had grown lax – because successive governments had ducked the question of MPs’ pay, and the allowances had come to be regarded as a form of concealed remuneration. But the extent of corruption and criminality has been grotesquely exaggerated. In the old days, the fees office may have been slack. Now MPs can find themselves treated like Bob Cratchit being interrogated by Scrooge over a farthing’s deficiency in the day’s ledger.


That is the background to the recall question. Of itself, the measure is not that damaging, or that significant. It would be very hard for an MP to find himself recalled. But it will have undesirable consequences, because it will further undermine the public’s respect for Parliament and, therefore, for our democratic system.

Democracy is a difficult concept. One can understand why Churchill said that it was the worst form of government, apart from all the others. In Isaiah Berlin’s words, “the great goods cannot always live together”. We British appear to be wedded to a pair of especially contrarian great goods. We want democracy. We also want strong government. The compromise is an arrangement that can turn electoral pluralities into comfortable Commons’ majorities, and which often enables governments to ignore opinion polls and defy public opinion. But it usually produces strong government.

There is a second great contradiction. If asked, most voters would prefer an MP who was independent-minded and who would refuse to truckle to the Whips. But most thoughtful voters are aware that government is a team game. Unless most of the players did what the captain told them for most of the time, the legislative programme would collapse and there would be no prospect of strong government.

There is no final answer to these problems. The best that we can hope for is a compromise, stronger in practice than in theory. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight is ever made”. Better a durable compromise than an attempt to reconstruct our system on abstract principles. We must not forget that by European standards, the UK has not been badly governed.

Equally, the British would prefer to respect their system of government. The Mother of Parliaments et al is not just sentimentality. If the public came to despise the law-makers, they might move on to despising the laws. The hope would be that as the expenses scandal receded while the economy continued to grow, MPs’ would gradually regain public confidence. A recall Bill will do nothing to encourage that. We must resist cheap populist gestures aimed at appeasing those who delight in the idea of despising MPs. If they have their way, the day will come when those who are not despicable will refuse to stand.

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Show comments
  • mightymark

    Excellent article. In particular, one of the things I have learnt as I grow older is that public goods do not always go together. It bears constant repetition and I usually have to tell my friends on the left this as they are often repeat offenders – but they clearly not the only ones.

    One worry I have is the possible way recall could be abused to bring down destroy a government with a narrow majority.

  • pajeroexceed

    There is no hope for this Country ! The weight of Immigration ( seven thousand every seven days ) is destined to cripple this small overcrowded island in just a few more years, It will then irreversibly impact on all of us no matter where we live or how wealthy we are,
    We will all be shoulder to shoulder with a need to build on the green belt land as the problems impact on a growing number of residents. It is coming, All those fools who voted Conservative in Newark must be crying out for more of it ! So bring it on ‘ Its their lose too.

  • AndrewMelville

    Recall is an absurd concept. We electors have full control over our representatives with an opportunity to toss them out at every election. This is just a silly device to threaten MPs and given unwarranted power to agitators.

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  • Turdson Minor

    The trouble, Mr Anderson, is that for many of us, any faith in the political system has now been permanently extinguished. We believe nothing any of the politicians say, and nothing that apologists such as you, say.

  • global city

    ‘Populist’, ‘Populist… my how the lesser flapperati love to parrot their master’s voice.

    WTF? Who allowed this horribly elitist continental word gain usage in the UK political sphere?

  • callingallcomets

    Blimey, the Speccie must be desperate to wheel out Bruce Anderson

  • The Masked Marvel

    Democracy is a difficult concept, yes. Sometimes, it’s not what our betters want, and so we get these lectures.

  • Blindsideflanker

    There are bigger problems that have debased our democracy than recall.

    • Denis_Cooper

      Indeed, as Cameron pointed out in his signed article in the Sun on
      September 26th 2007:

      “The final reason we must have a vote is trust. Gordon Brown talks
      about “new” politics.

      But there’s nothing “new” about breaking your promises to the British public.
      It’s classic Labour.

      And it is the cancer that is eating away at trust in politics. Small wonder
      that so many people don’t believe a word politicians ever say if they break
      their promises so casually.

      If you really want to signal you’re a break from the past, Prime Minister, do
      the right thing — give the people the referendum you promised.

      Today, I will give this cast-iron guarantee: If I become PM a Conservative
      government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations.

      No treaty should be ratified without consulting the British people in a

      • Aberrant_Apostrophe

        “If I become PM a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations”

        I bet he breathed a sigh of relief when didn’t get a majority and had to form a coalition.

  • Rhoda Klapp8

    Oh, and when someone sneers ‘populist’ that is a sign that you need waste no time in finding out all their other opinions.

  • Rhoda Klapp8

    Well, here you go, any constituency can adopt recall by a polular vote in an off-year. Following adoption, any candidate for that seat has to accept recall as a condition. Or pick a constituency without. There, everybody happy.

    And Mr Bruce Anderson is an idiot with a cloth ear if he thinks recall just ain’t fair. No tenure for MPs if the people they represent don’t like their behaviour. With appropriate safeguards against vexatious recall attempts.

  • fathomwest

    This article is a disgrace and the writer has obviously forgotten the promise Cameron made prior to the last election. The one fact remains and that is Cameron just cannot be trusted.

  • rtj1211

    This is the usual way to discredit a worthy concept: offer a supine version of it.

    It’s like offering an incorrigible gang-banging nymphomaniac as the sole possible wife for a devout Christian man.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      …it is?

  • CharlietheChump

    Recall must be triggered by constituent voters not a Whip stitch up. Also in tendem we should select potential candidates through open selection.

    You are part of the problem Brucie.

  • Donafugata

    Possibly the majority of MPs start out with the best intentions but for how long does that last?

    When they hear from others about what they could get away with when claiming expenses and start to believe it doesn’t matter because “everybody is at it”, they are already on the slippery slope to venality.

    It’s the way of the world.

  • Donafugata

    MPs get £2000 per month housing subsidy?

    It really is time for a purpose-built barracks for their sojourns in London.
    Or a nice little B and B, perhaps.

    • Tony_E

      Only if you want to make them a target for terrorists.

      Stick em all in one place = one big bomb to cause massive damage.

      • Donafugata

        Portcullis House is there, ready and waiting.

    • rtj1211

      Why don’t you focus on the greedy landlords and the supply-constrained housebuilding system rather than the MPs??

      if you treat MPs like children expelled from school and sent to borstal who do you think you’ll get?? Criminals, charlatans and crooks.

      • the viceroy’s gin

        …so no different than today’s crop, then.

    • Kaine

      Well if Lizzy would take the hint from Juan Carlos we could convert Buckingham Palace.

  • Smithersjones2013

    Anderson either lacks the wit to realise that if strong government cannot be achieved in a democratic society by the existing government structure then that indicates that power is not distributed properly or is cynically pretending that their is no solution to maintain the status quo. The answer, Of course is to redistribute the power in such a way that strong government is once again achievable. Politicians don’t like democracy because whether they resist it or not it forces change upon politicians and in particular it redistributes power..

    In the UK the centrallsed government structure shows all the signs of suffering from diseconomies of scale. it is obese, resource intensive and over-centralised and demostrates widespread dysfunctionality. The obvious answer is to further devolve power (EU withdrawal, federal UK structure, English assembly, devolved financial home nation budgets and taxes, localism etc etc)..

    The Mother of parliaments needs major surgery but the likes of Anderson would rather stick his head in the sand and let it suffer and perhaps one day die……

  • P_S_W

    Recall wouldn’t even be an issue if Parliament (Commons and Lords) policed itself correctly. Too many MPs and Lords have managed to get off the hook for offences that the ‘common man’ would have been sanctioned and in a lot of cases jailed for.
    This is an issue of their own making.
    The problem with recall is that unless everyone in a constituency voted for the recalled MP is that the system can be used for portisan mischief making. Tribal politics should be set aside for something as serious as this but inevitably won’t. If MP’s can’t contain themselves, why should voters?
    The solution is to either ensure the institutions police themselves better or have an independent ombudsman who decides whether a transgression is a clear breach and then sanctions the person involved. And there is no reason why a local association shouldn’t deselect their local MP and trigger a byelection.
    Recall as Goldsmith wants it is too open to abuse but actually so are all the alternatives.

  • colliemum

    This is cheap and childish: “A lot of voters are angry with MPs and want to punish them. “ – no, we don’t want to ‘punish’ them, we want them gone, and not be able to hang about on our money when shown to have done things for which every other person not an MP would be hauled before the courts.

    And this is equally unworthy: “We must resist cheap populist gestures aimed at appeasing those who delight in the idea of despising MPs. If they have their way, the day will come when those who are not despicable will refuse to stand.” Nobody despises those who are not despicable already.
    Regarding the last sentence: how many ordinary people are actually able to stand when the Party machines prefer those they’ve fabricated, from the time they left Uni?

  • Adam Carter

    Bruce Anderson writes about ‘the public’s respect for Parliament.’
    Nowhere has he addressed what appears to me to be clearly the problem: the diminishing respect the politicians have for the public.

  • Denis_Cooper

    The reason I want a proper recall system, not the diluted bastardised version on offer, has little to do with MP’s pecuniary offences and much more to do with their political offences. Of course it would be unreasonable to expect that an MP would
    be able to keep every one of the many detailed and in some cases rather minor promises that he made in order to get elected, and I don’t expect that any MP
    would ever be recalled over a small breach of his manifesto pledges because most
    of his constituents would be willing to either overlook that or wait until the general election rather than insist on his resignation and so precipitate a by-election. However there are some political offences which are so gross and so time critical that they justify immediate action to attempt to remove the MP. Perhaps Bruce Anderson has forgotten why we are now subject to the Lisbon Treaty, with all it ramifications? Because we had no system whereby constituents could put effective pressure on their MPs and force them to support a referendum before the bloody thing had come into force, that’s why.

  • swatnan

    What cheapens our democracy is having ex cons and jailbirds sitting in the Lords, prisonners being allowed the vote and disreputable MPs being allowed in the Chamber and extreme Parties being allowed to conduct their campaigns of hate and xenophobia without taking action to ban them.

    • Grey Wolf

      But you always have the option of leaving these lands and going back…think about it.

  • whs1954

    God help us if we were to get Zac Goldsmith’s cherished dream which seems to be recall at the drop of a hat. Ask the voters of Newark today if the great answer to our problems is more by-elections and more by-election campaigning.

  • Farquharson

    Nope… you’re wrong.

  • MikeF

    Mandatory recall means that the result of a general election can be challenged and subverted by an activist minority.

    • Holly

      And it most definitely will be jumped upon by the screaming lefty loons, who still believe ‘THEIR’ utopia is real…..IF ONLY Idiot boy was in charge…..Or the Green party.

      The thought of having to live under Idiot boy’s diktat regime scares the heebies out of me.

    • Aberrant_Apostrophe

      “…subverted by an activist minority”

      Just like Tower Hamlets then?

      As for being a ‘bad idea’, I disagree. It is a good idea but, as you rightly point out, is potentially flawed in its implementation. Perhaps the solution is to only disbar permanently an MP (or member of the Lords) if they are found guilty by a jury and sentenced to, say, a minimum of twelve months imprisonment. That is essentially what is being proposed, but I distrust the idea of letting a committee formed of their peers make the ultimate decision. Mutual back scratching and all that.

      • MikeF

        “found guilty by a jury and sentenced to, say, a minimum of twelve months imprisonment” – I can see that that might be OK, but otherwise the will of the electorate has to remain inviolable even if it turns out they have elected a fool or a knave.

        • Denis_Cooper

          Sure, “the will of the electorate has to remain inviolable”, but they can only express that will when permitted to do by the politicians, and definitely not of their own initiative. We should really think ourselves lucky that they even allow us to vote once every five years, they could say that as they’ve been elected once there’s no need to have any further elections.

          • MikeF

            “they could say that as they’ve been elected once there’s no need to have any further elections” – that probably is the mentality of the EU. But as far UK elections are concerned a rule that, say, a byelection could be called if 10 per cent of the electorate called for it would be a recipe for mayhem.

            • the viceroy’s gin

              If 10% of the electorate, confirmed voters, petitioned for a by-election over, say, a 45 day period, that might be an appropriate trigger.

              I think you’ll find it a rather cumbersome and expensive process to gather those signatures in such a short period. But if it needs be more cumbersome, make it 30 days, even.

              If the electorate wants an MP gone, and a first flush reaction is captured to do it, what’s wrong with that?

              • Denis_Cooper

                There would be nothing to prevent the recalled MP contesting the by-election, when he could appeal to the other 90% to vote him back in .

                • P_S_W

                  But isn’t that the point of recall? If he contests and is re-elected then the people have spoken.

                  If it’s as serious an offence as you seem to infer, then his local association should de-select him – problem solved.

                • Denis_Cooper

                  He is not there to represent his local association, comprising a small number of tribal supporters of his particular party, but all his constituents.

                • P_S_W

                  You miss my point.

                  If he contests and is elected by his constituents then it’s game over as the people have spoken.

            • Denis_Cooper

              You underestimate the difficulty of collecting typically 7000 validated signatures from among constituents who are on the whole fair-minded and not pining for the inconvenience of an unnecessary by-election for the sake of some tribal party loyalty. Less than 1% of people are now members of any political party and if there was no good cause for having a fresh election then a party which started a basically vexatious recall petition would quickly run out people prepared to sign it and would end up having expended time and energy and only made itself look foolish. However if it turned out that you were right and that the requirement for 10% of registered electors to sign the petition did indeed prove to be “a recipe for mayhem” then the threshold could be raised to a level where vexatious petitions would not succeed.

              • MikeF

                All good points but the basic principle surely is that an MP is elected for the term of the Parliament that is either about to start or is already underway. I can see the point of triggering a byelection if an MP is sent to prison for some stipulated minimum period but even then that is not as straightforward as it seems. What if they are convicted of ‘hate-speech’ after endorsing concerns expressed by constituents? No – this is about the independence of elected representatives during the life of a particular parliament and that is something worth protecting by more than just a presumption that enough people would not be bothered to sign a petition.

                • the viceroy’s gin

                  They’ll have independence still. They’ll also have accountability, and not over some arbitrary interval, but one ultimately set by the People.

                • Denis_Cooper

                  It’s not unusual for somebody to be employed for on a fixed term contract but with a clause permitting early termination by the employer on the event of misconduct by the employee.

                  MPs reckon they should be different, of course they do: they reserve their right to terminate their contracts at any time they please, but object to the idea that their employers should be able to seek early termination no matter how they have failed to do their job of representing them in Parliament.

                  This is no necessarily anything to do with criminal activities, it is simply to do with their failure to fulfil the requirements of the contract on which they have been employed.

                  We are told “They Work For You”; well then we should have the legal right to dismiss them when they don’t, without having to wait for years to get rid of them.

  • Grey Wolf

    In Isaiah Berlin’s words, “the great goods cannot always live together”.

    Talk about selling wet dreams.

  • Iain Hill

    Say after me: voters are in charge. They must not be ignored. MPs should represent voters’ interests and not those of themselves or the 1%. Voters should have greater powers to get rid of them, and we should not be bound by old myths about mandate created by necessity when transport and communications were poor. MPs can ascertain the views of their constituents in an instant, and should be compelled to do so, on pain of dismissal. In a conflict between the views of a party and constituents (eg the Iraq war) MPs must learn that there is no conflict!

    • HookesLaw

      MPs are up for election every 5 years. They are subject to adoption by their own parties. You’d never guess that from your comments

    • Grey Wolf

      Say after me: Utopia is not real. I am not in it.

    • Kaine

      You seem to be confused about the role of MPs. They are representatives, not delegates. They are there to do what in their judgement is the best course of action, not what you want at any given time.

      • Rhoda Klapp8

        And the recall will test their judgment. If they fail, cheat, break the law, then the voters may be asked to exercise theirs.

        • Kaine

          We have that already, they’re called elections. They ensure a proper assessment can be made, rather than a decision made by an angry minority of constituents. And it will always be a minority, unless the trigger is 50%+1 signatories.

          • Rhoda Klapp8

            If they stand in the by-election they can get elected again. There does have to be a threshold to avoid vexatious recall attempts by vocal minorites. A high threshold, because holding a by-election is expensive. Surely a formula can be found, or copied from some country that does it already.

            I don’t want to recall a lot of MPs. I want them to behave in fear of recall. I think we may need to recall a few to encourage the others.

  • Tim

    I’m okay with the idea of recall so long as the system is devised which takes our vexatious recalls, ie, trying to reverse a general election result for nothing otehr than party advantage. I realise this will be hard but there must be a way of having recall without it being a political tool.

    Of course, if MPs were more honourable – that Newick one aside – and resigned when caught with their hands in the till – this wouldn’t be necessary.

  • Colin

    Your arguments would have more credibility, if:

    a. They were based on fact.
    b. We were living in the 1950’s, before the era of career politicians.
    c. You weren’t a fully indoctrinated member of the Political / Media Complex.

    The mere fact that a recall Bill was promised and then reneged upon, proves exactly why we need one. That, and the (unresolved) expenses scandal.

    You do realise that you’re part of the problem, don’t you?

    • John Dalton

      I read this article with growing anger. I’ve heard the question “they just don’t get it, do they?” a million times – but every single one of those times it’s valid.

      I’m sure a lot of MPs start off well-intentioned – BUT they’ve made such a hash of things and are so utterly disconnected from the people with their smug metropolitan leftist orthodoxies that the public have lost all faith in them. They see the damage that these people have done as they look around and no longer recognize their own country. I’d be very surprised if trust can ever be restored – and yet still we get articles like this assuming that we can be manipulated like sheep.

      If MPs start addressing the real issues – massive societal change due to open door immigration, the surrender of our sovereignty to sinister unelected bureaucrats in the EU, the long march of the Left through all our institutions, the feeling that everything – EVERYTHING – these people do is one big self-serving stitch up – then we might start to look upon them more sympathetically.

      • telemachus

        I would certainly advocate recall for any MP who did the bidding of your last paragraph
        We want representatives not delegates
        If we simply delegated our MP’s we would still have hanging

        • the viceroy’s gin

          …and if we still had hanging, there’s a chance you socialist nutters could get what you deserve.

          • rtj1211

            This comment is so unacceptable that you should be banned for life from ever commenting again.

            Socialists do NOT, repeat NOT, deserve to be hung for their beliefs, any more than Christians, Jews or fascists like you deserve to be.

            Now I suggest you issue an unreserved apology for your inhumanity, your mental illness and your undiluted venality.

            • the viceroy’s gin

              …no, I don’t guess I’ll be apologizing, certainly not to you socialist nutters.

    • Kaine

      We’ve always had career politicians. Indeed, they’re usually the best ones. What was Churchill?

      • Colin

        Churchill was a charlatan. But, I think you’ll find he had life experience beyond politics.

        • Kaine

          He entered the Commons at the age of 25. I think you’ll find the experience beyond politics was had whilst being a career politician.

          • Colin

            Keep trying. He commanded an Infantry battalion in WW1, as penance for Gallipoli. He served in the Cavalry before that and had a stint as a war reporter. Not quite in the same league as miliband et al.

            • Kaine

              No, in WW1, following Gallipoli he had himself enrolled as a private. He didn’t stop being an MP. Prior to that he’d been a reporter and played polo for the Cavalry while his mother bankrolled him.

              I quite like Churchill, but he was a consummate and lifelong politician. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but many, including yourself, seem to.

              • Colin

                No, he was the C.O. Of the 6th Bn, Royal Scots Fusiliers, on the Western Front. Last time I looked, Privates didn’t get to command regiments. Like I wrote, he was a charlatan, but in terms of being a career politician in the mould of miliband, et al, No.

                Christopher Hitchins did a good number on Churchill. A real eye opener.

      • Kitty MLB

        They had gumption in those days.Now we have
        wee political pygmies. They just see politics as
        a tick on their CV…None of our bunch are worthy
        to wander in their shadows.

  • Frank

    Rubbish, think of Mike Hancock, Tim Yeo, Mercer, Laws, Maria Miller, etc, etc, etc.
    Secondly, do you really think that the public doesn’t already despise many of the laws parliament has passed?
    Thirdly, we are already way beyond the point when people who are not despicable are refusing to stand as MPs.

    • HookesLaw

      Miller was not guilty of anything other than being rude to a committee. What was Laws guilty of? He was entitled to claim expenses for renting a room, nothing was paid that was not entitled. We now find ourselves paying even more for his independent accommodation. I think we now find ourselves paying more for MPs accommodation generally under the new rules.

      • Frank

        Hookie, you must be getting a subsidy from Grant Schapps.
        The delicious Maria was claiming that her rented bungalow in Basingstoke was her main home. This allowed her to claim for all the expenses of her family home in south London. David Laws was paying rent to his “landlord” who eventually turned out to be his boyfriend.

        • southerner

          Hook is a socialist Camerloon. That’s why he blindly lies on their behalf.

        • Grey Wolf

          H-Law comes cheap. Does it for free. Shapps pays him nothing. Delicious Maria! What is the matter with you? Have you had a look at Ms Mordaunt?

        • P_S_W

          Laws would have actually been entitled to claim more, so the point that his landlord turned out to be his boyfriend shows that Laws actually saved taxpayers money.

        • telemachus

          You know well that Miller was subjected to a vicious campaign by the Telegraph including doorstepping her sick father
          For having the temerity to try to implement Leveson

    • rtj1211

      Why don’t you post a list of all those whose expenses were legal, legitimate and justifiable??

      Start with George Galloway, who has claimed not one penny in expenses.

      It’ll be quite a long list, trust me.

      • the viceroy’s gin

        Galloway, eh?

        Speaking of socialist nutters and the hangman…

  • HookesLaw

    Why then Mr Anderson did you allow or remain silent when the ignorant press misrepresented the expenses scandal?
    The issue is here because of the way the press blew it up. The press blew it up because they needed to protect themselves from their own excesses.
    On top of which there are some MPs whose acts were totally criminal. Of course as such they would not survive anyway.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      Of course they’d survive. You Camerluvvies are keeping a multiply-accused rapist around, with nary a thought of dumping him. These wretches think this is their sinecure, as do you.

  • @PhilKean1

    Or, it is a political construct that will help enable some of the nuttier, but very vocal and organised elements in British society, such as the loony Greens, to destroy what little democracy we have left.

    • HookesLaw

      Loonies? Coming from you that’s a laugh.

      • @PhilKean1

        Is your propensity to insult meant to compensate for your lack of rational argument, or does it reflect a Freudian physical deficiency?

    • Iain Hill

      Destroy? Enforce, surely!