Primaries and recall elections may be nice ideas, but they won’t transform British politics

3 June 2013

1:14 PM

3 June 2013

1:14 PM

Say at least this for those twin gadflies Douglas Carswell MP and Daniel Hannan MEP, they are optimists in a political scene often dominated by a certain brand of dreary pessimism.  Their faith in the bracing refreshment of a reformed democracy is as palpable as it is touching. Their article in today’s Telegraph, repeating their long-pressed arguments for open primaries and recalling errant MPs.

Neither idea is without merit. Even so, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that neither measure would have quite the transformative impact Messrs Carswell and Hannan suggest.

They argue, for instance, that open primaries would put an end to safe seats. And they insist that introducing the power of recall would reduce the likelihood of parliamentary corruption. Neither of these assertions, however, is supported by any serious evidence. Again, that does not invalidate the ideas themselves but it does suggest the impact of their introduction is liable to be more limited than is sometimes claimed.

As always, the “read across” from the American experience to the United Kingdom should be be treated with some caution. Nevertheless, no-one who has any experience or knowledge of the US House of Representatives can credibly argue that open primaries (or recall) have produced the results Carswell and Hannan suggest would be experienced in the United Kingdom.

Indeed, the incumbency advantage in the US is, if anything, even more pronounced than it is in this country. Moreover and even allowing for the corrosive effect of gerrymandered Congressional districts, most of the time the impact of open primaries do is to make the real contest the primary, not the general election. Facilitating primary challenges to sitting MPs might make some members nervous and possibly imperil their careers; most of the time it would have little impact on the strength of party representation at Westminster. Kensington or South Shields will remain safe seats, no matter what mechanism is used to select candidates.

And since turn-out in primary elections – even open, rather than closed primaries – is bound to be lower than in a general election, it seems probable that primaries might often be captured by candidates backed by muscular special interests capable of out-organising the competition. In other words, primaries could easily produce MPs further from the “mainstream” than is presently the case.

Perhaps that would not be a bad development but it is not necessarily obvious that this would produce a better class of parliamentarian either.

Similarly, the power of recall already, in effect, exists. It’s called a general election. If voters really are disgusted by their representative they already have the means for registering that disgust. They need only show some patience and wait a while.

There is, I think, little evidence that American states that allow for recall elections are better governed than those that do not.

California, of course, is the most prominent example of these states. But the evidence from the Golden State also suggests that recall is a power of limited use. Since 1913 only nine recall efforts have mustered sufficient signatures to trigger an actual recall election and of these only five have sacked the incumbent. (It may be telling, however, that six of the nine have come since 1994).

Then again, in the past 100 years there have been no fewer than 47 attempts to force  a recall election for the state’s governor. Many of these, doubtless, were trivial or vexatious or partisan efforts that led nowhere.

Even so, it is hard to avoid the thought that Carswell and Hannan’s plan to permit recall elections when just 10% of a constituencies’ electorate demand it is a plan open to serial and partisan abuse. In the British system this would permit recall elections if just 8,000 voters wanted a second-crack at the seat. Even if most of these efforts were defeated at the subsequent recall election one can easily imagine dozens of MPs facing largely-frivolous recall elections each parliament.

I suspect that fear is why the government seems oddly-minded to suggest MPs be given the right to sack one another. As Carswell says, this is a terrible idea further concentrating power at Westminster rather than, as he would like to see, diffusing it.   As so often our parliamentarians are adept at taking an idea of questionable value and transforming it into one of no merit whatsoever.

In any case, if the American example indicates anything (despite the application of all the usual and necessary caveats) it is that neither recall nor primaries guard against corruption, indolence or any other brand of nefarious behaviour.

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