When we vote at a general election, we don’t just choose a candidate but a party and government as well. Voters are encouraged by the electoral system to ignore the personal qualities of the candidates and vote according to which party they want to form the government. Even if they want to express them, voters’ feelings about individual candidates are crowded out by other concerns. This means that elections deliver a verdict on the government, not the performance of the individual MP. MPs rise and fall on the basis of their party label, not their own decisions. The estimated 400 out of 650 MPs who represent safe seats have little to fear from a general election. Individual accountability is weak or non-existent.
Voters want the power to hold their MPs individually to account but the current system gives them no real opportunity to do so. The link between an MP and their constituents is supposed to be one of the strengths of the current system. When that link provides constituents with no effective means to hold their MP accountable, even in extreme cases like the expenses scandal, the system is broken. The flaw in the system runs far deeper than misconduct. The lack of individual accountability allows MPs who are failing their constituents to escape the judgment of the electorate.
Recall is a mechanism which allows voters to remove an elected official from office by a vote between elections. Full recall is a recall mechanism which gives voters themselves the choice of when to recall and for what reason.
Recall plugs the gap in our current system by giving constituents the means to hold individual MPs to account. As well as giving voters a way to challenge wrongdoing on the part of their MP, it would also provide recourse in other situations where the MP has breached their mandate. Recall would act as a safety valve, giving constituents who have lost confidence in their MP the opportunity to vote them out between elections.
After the expenses scandal, all of the main political parties accepted the argument for recall. Recall enjoys widespread public support: as a recent YouGov poll indicated, 68% back recall. But as the scandal grew more distant, politicians’ enthusiasm for recall waned.
In 2011, the government announced plans for recall but their proposals hand a parliamentary committee, rather than ordinary people, the power to decide whether voters should be able to recall an MP. The public would play a minor role in the process, which would primarily empower politicians to sit in judgment of other politicians. This year they have resurrected those plans.
The government has rejected full recall, claiming it was incompatible with the UK political system. This report uses international examples to show how full recall could work in the party-based Westminster system, enhancing individual accountability without compromising the collective accountability of a government at the ballot box.
There are four key examples of situations in which full recall could strengthen the individual accountability of MPs:
● misconduct: full recall gives voters the power to determine whether an MP’s behaviour justifies a recall, rather than imposing rigid rules on what constitutes misconduct or allowing politicians to sit in judgment of other politicians
● failure to represent: voters should have the power to vote to remove an MP who fails to meet even the most basic expectations of their constituents, such as holding surgeries or responding to inquiries
● crossing the floor: an MP who is elected on the basis of one party label and then switches to another should face the judgment of their constituents, who should be able to endorse or reject their decision
● breaking electoral promises: voters should be able to vote to remove an MP who breaks a policy promise made as part of their election campaign
Full recall is not without risks. If recall is too easy to trigger, it may be abused in order to divert MPs’ time and effort away from their duties; if it is too difficult to trigger, it offers no meaningful check on MPs’ behaviour. However, a properly designed system of recall, with appropriate safeguards, would minimise disruption while ensuring that it promotes accountability. Recall should
be difficult, but not impossible.