David Gauke MP: Why should dishonest or incompetent MPs be secure until the next General Election?
David Gauke is MP for SW Hertfordshire and a member of the Conservative Treasury team.
The letter to the Daily Telegraph on Friday from 27 members of the 2005 intake of Conservative MPs, including myself, proposed that consideration should be given to introducing a 'recall mechanism' for MPs. It has stirred up a fair amount of debate on ConservativeHome and elsewhere, which was the intention, but it might be helpful if I expanded on some of the issues it raised.
David Cameron has spoken on a number of occasions, including this weekend, about how public faith in our political institutions is ‘draining away’. He is right and this will not end by us just hunkering down and hoping the mood will pass.
One of the reasons there has been a breakdown in trust is that we politicians appear to be a privileged class who live by different standards to everyone else. For example, once elected, we are effectively unsackable until the next General Election four or five years away.
For most people, a failure in performance, let alone probity, would jeopardise their employment in a much shorter timeframe. MPs may be suspended but, unless they are declared bankrupt or imprisoned for twelve months or more, their job remains protected for the rest of the Parliament.
Of course, there are good reasons why Parliament should not have the discretion to expel an MP. We MPs hold our position as a consequence of the decision of our constituents and it is an important democratic principle that only our constituents should have the discretion to remove us from that position. The electorate giveth and the electorate - and only the electorate - taketh away.
The proposal for a recall mechanism is an attempt at preserving this principle whilst still addressing the public frustration at the semi-protected position of MPs.
The US experience, where the recall mechanism is well established, demonstrates that it serves a purpose but that it is only activated in exceptional circumstances.
In California, for example, a recall mechanism has been in place since 1911. A recall ballot is triggered if the number of signatures obtained from registered voters equals 12% of the number of votes cast in the previous election. Once this threshold has been achieved, there is then a straight Yes/No vote on whether the official should be sacked.
In the 97 years in which this recall mechanism has been available, there have been 117 attempts to use it. But of those 117 attempts, only seven succeeded in obtaining a ballot and of those seven, only one was successful in removing an official – Governor Gray Davis in 2003.
Nor is California uncommon. In the 18 US states that have a recall mechanism in place, in addition to the Gray Davis case, there has only been one other occasion where a governor has been recalled (North Dakota’s Lynn J. Frazier in 1921).
Why so few? First, as anyone who has attempted to organise the nomination forms for multiple council candidates can tell you, obtaining large numbers of signatures which are legible and contain the correct name, address and electoral roll number is not quite as easy as it sounds. To trigger a recall ballot for Gray Davis required 900,000 signatures.
Second, and more importantly, the low level of success suggests that the Californian public has been sceptical about vexatious recall campaigns. Faced with a request to sign a recall petition or vote for the dismissal of a specific individual, the US experience is that most people most of the time use their power with care.
There is no reason to believe that the UK would be different. It is a widely observed phenomenon that the public tend to have a higher opinion of their own MP than they do of MPs in general. The relationship between politicians and the public may be difficult at the moment, but we politicians do still believe that our electorates are essentially fair-minded, don’t we?
So when should a recall mechanism be available in the UK? Many of the 27 signatories to the Daily Telegraph letter would probably restrict it to those occasions where the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee determines that an MP has committed an offence serious enough to warrant this sanction.
A petition would still be required but my view is that the threshold for triggering a recall vote could be relatively small. A threshold number of signatures of, say, 20% of the numbers voting in the previous election (9,000 to 10,000 people in most constituencies) collected over a maximum period of three months, seems to me to be more than reasonable.
A more controversial proposal, albeit more in line with US practice, would be to allow a recall ballot even where no disciplinary action has been taken. Here, I would argue, the signature threshold should be higher and more in the region of 40% of the numbers voting the previous election.
In these circumstances, it would be rarely used. An entirely vexatious recall petition would have no chance of succeeding but one can imagine constituency feeling running high enough to obtain the necessary signatures. As a matter of academic interest, using the threshold I have suggested, it would require 18,859 signatures to trigger a recall ballot in Grantham & Stamford.
With these safeguards in place, many of the practical concerns raised about the proposal no longer seem very persuasive.
It has been suggested that this proposal is a gimmick or a knee jerk reaction. But, as Daniel Hannan has pointed out, this idea ‘meshes with a series of other localist policies aimed at making decision-makers more vulnerable to public opinion’.
Many of the signatories to the Daily Telegraph letter were also signatories to the Direct Democracy pamphlet published in 2005 which argued for devolving power to an electorate increasingly shut out from decisions which affect their lives. A recall mechanism for MPs is entirely consistent with that agenda.
It may once have been a slogan of the far Left, but a new generation of Conservative MPs is motivated by the words ‘Power to the People’. Only by showing more trust in the public will we restore the public’s trust in us.