A spate of recent controversies has renewed demands for ‘full recall’ – where ten percent of voters can sign a petition, triggering a local referendum on whether an MP should lose their seat and a by-election held. MPs need to be held accountable for their actions, but around the world, where full recall exists, it has led to a swathe of unintended consequences.
The lesson from America has been that big business, trade unions and tech-savvy campaign groups can plot and bankroll the collection of a few thousand signatures and then the pro-recall campaign. The goal of a recall campaign could simply be wasting the time and money of your opponent, or distracting them from the job they were elected to do.
Full recall could easily become a free for all, as religious evangelicals and women’s rights organisation would target MPs for their view on abortion, energy companies and environmental activists persecute MPs for their views on fracking, and the RSPCA and Countryside Alliance hound MPs for their views on fox-hunting. Any group could do this whenever they wanted to settle vendettas against an MP with whom they disagree, whether local people wanted them to or not.
As well as being used by interest groups, full recall can be a partisan tool. Due to the broken electoral system we use in Westminster, many MPs get elected with less than 50% of the vote. In over half of constituencies in 2015, a majority of voters didn’t vote for the winner. With full recall, unsuccessful parties and their supporters could continually trigger recall votes before losing again at the by-election. Each attempt would cost the taxpayer, parties and candidates a lot of money, while voters get fatigued – resulting in lower turnout each time. Those who are not content are likelier to vote than those who are content, further skewing the result.
Nationally, full recall is complicated by the United Kingdom’s parliamentary democracy. Voters who live in a given seat would be able to recall for example the fisheries minister, the shadow home secretary or even the prime minister, whereas voters in the rest of the country could not.
What’s more, MPs would be less likely to act with a long-term view or in the national interest if they feared the backlash of a short-term local recall campaign. They would be less likely to stick to their principles, speak their mind on controversial issues or take on powerful interest groups.
There are many ways someone can serve their constituency and country as a good MP. Developing government or opposition policies as a frontbencher; scrutinising the government in select committees; banging the drum for the local area in the chamber; banging heads together of local stakeholders to secure local improvements; doing casework to help constituents with personal problems. A minority of constituents who think an MP has this balance wrong shouldn’t be able to trigger a recall vote.
Finally, an MP who is campaigning against a recall vote—to convince their voters that they have been making the right decisions—has less time, resource and energy to get on with their job.
Full recall would not improve our democracy – and in many ways would harm it. We are always going to have unpopular MPs when you don’t have to be popular to win a seat. Introducing full recall would just add an extra level of chaos to Westminster’s already volatile electoral system.
The long-term solution is to deal with Westminster’s safe seat pandemic. In hundreds of constituencies across the country, if an MP keeps a few members of a tiny party selectorate happy they have a job for life. With a fair system like the one they use in Ireland, we wouldn’t need recall in the first place. The Single Transferable Vote would end the days of unpopular local MPs and give the power back to voters.
Photo from the unsuccessful attempt to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker – Creative Commons Marctasman. Candidates and outside groups spent more than $80 million in the governor’s recall race.