The Coalition’s mishandling of recall: worse than Baldrick’s war poem

Chris Game

Seeking an arresting phrase to convey the protracted abjectness of the events described in this blog, my first thought was Education Secretary Michael Gove’s  ‘misbegotten shambles’ – his accusatory summary of how certain historians and popular TV programmes like Blackadder have depicted the First World War.

Then I realised Captain Blackadder himself does the job even better in the final ‘Goodbyeee’ episode that probably riles Gove most. Appraising Private Baldrick’s second most famous war poem – not ‘Boom, boom’, but ‘Hear the words I sing, war’s a horrid thing’ – the Captain opines: “Well, it started badly, tailed off a little in the middle, and the less said about the end, the better. But, apart from that, excellent.”  A neat encapsulation, I’d suggest, of the sad story of the Coalition Government’s pledge to give electors the power through petition and election to recall/remove MPs and other public officials before the end of their term of office.

The less said about the pathetic end probably is for the better, but there has to be something. It looked to have arrived when it was widely reported last month that David Cameron and presumably his elections adviser, Lynton Crosbie, had decided that – with two incumbent Tory MPs already deselected and Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, apparently about to escape any significant punishment for claiming over £90,000 in allowances for a second home for her parents – it was time to kill the whole expenses-prompted recall issue by dropping the anyway ineffectual Bill from May’s Queen’s Speech.

This week the PM appeared to have completed a double U-turn, with the announcement that the recall Bill had not been recalled – well, not permanently anyway – and that it may well, or perhaps not, feature in the Queen’s Speech; but, either way, it owed nothing whatever to the Lib Dems.

It’s one more of the Coalition’s lengthening list of political reforms – an elected House of Lords, a smaller House of Commons and reformed electoral system, a House Business Committee, even the promised funding of 200 all-postal open primaries that I blogged about recently – whose actual or seriously contemplated abandonment must, if it were possible, have increased still further public cynicism towards the whole parliamentary system.

Whatever its immediate future, though, MPs’ recall is really only the secondary concern of this blog. My main moan here is the Coalition’s total neglect of the ‘other public officials’ strand – that should by now be in place and applying to at least directly elected mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners, both of which offices would, in my view, have proved more attractive to a suspicious electorate, had a recall provision been part of the package.

Recall, like referendums, citizens’ initiatives and petitions, is an instrument of direct democracy for holding directly elected politicians to account. Put simply, ‘fully participatory recall’ means that the voters who elect someone to public office have the right, between scheduled elections and for any reason, to initiate and vote for their removal. It sounds a laudable principle – possibly even meriting a Blackadder ‘excellent’ – but not just a principle, for that’s essentially how it operates in, for example, around 30 American states, some German Länder, Japan, Switzerland, and British Columbia.

Necessarily, it generates public interest. Take last November’s recall of Mayor Deedy Slaughter (female, if you were wondering) by voters in the smallish Louisiana town of Port Allen. The Mayor had upset residents by, among other allegations, hiring her brother-in-law as chief-of-staff and de facto policy boss, attempting to fire the Chief Finance Officer without City Council approval, and charging to taxpayers her Washington trip for President Obama’s Inauguration. A recall petition was launched, and signed by well over the required one-third of registered voters; 57% of the 63% turnout in the ensuing election voted for recall, and the Mayor was ousted from office by the same people who had voted her in.

It’s undeniably democracy, but clearly the very idea scares the pants off many of our MPs, who, even in the wreckage of their collective expenses scandal, were never going to vote for that much of it. Nor, more seriously, despite what some idealistic reformers imagined, was there ever any real chance of their being asked to. For, like Baldrick’s poem, our very approach to recall started badly, in two distinct ways: one unfortunate but understandable, the other just depressing.

The unfortunate one, assuming at least some of those involved wanted the thing to work, was not taking advantage of the fact that the politicians whose accountability the recall procedure is best suited to secure are those exercising personal executive powers – like the elected mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) being promoted in other sections of the Coalition Agreement, both, as it happens, also the subject of recent INLOGOV blogs.

Both these imported posts would always have been hard to sell to a disengaged and disenchanted electorate – even supposing the Government had bothered to mount serious information campaigns. But, judging from my own limited involvement with both issues, I feel some of people’s genuine worries about the accountability and removability of these new powerful office holders could have been mollified by the existence of credible and participatory recall mechanisms.

Given how the whole concern with recall had arisen out of the 2009 parliamentary expenses scandal, it was inevitable that recall of MPs would get legislative priority. But it would not have been difficult to publicise the Government’s intention that elected mayors and PCCs would be subject to similar recall accountability – as opposed to tucking it away on page 9 of a Localism Bill impact assessment.

Certainly it would not have been difficult, having opted to legislate for MPs’ recall first, to make a better fist of it. Indeed, as we’ll see below, the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s view was that it would have been preferable to have produced nothing at all. That’s how depressing it was.

Much was made at the time of all three main parties’ 2010 manifestos supporting a right of recall; much less of the accompanying qualifications. For Labour it would apply only to MPs found responsible for financial misconduct (undefined); for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, it would be for proven “serious wrongdoing” (undefined).

From the outset, therefore, it was clear it would offer at most ‘mixed recall’, with voters’ involvement having to be triggered by someone else defining and proving the misconduct, wrongdoing, or whatever. And the ‘someone elses’, of course, would be the accused’s fellow MPs. The intended purpose of recall – empowering voters to hold MPs to account – would be turned virtually upside down. Yes, recall is a serious business and there should be safeguards, but not a parliamentary filter.

Apart from promising “early legislation”, the Coalition Agreement simply tidied up the manifesto pledges. Public confidence in our shamed parliamentarians was to be restored through what might be termed ‘late-in-the-day participatory recall’, “allowing voters to force a by-election where an MP is found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing and having had a petition calling for a by-election signed by 10% of his or her constituents.” (p.27).

The bad start was followed by the ‘tailing off a little in the middle’, or the draft Bill. Its many deficiencies included seeing recall as an instrument of discipline rather than democracy, and ‘serious wrongdoing’, without ever attempting to define it, as more concerned with prison sentences than abuse of position, breach of parliamentary privilege, nepotism, racism, cheating, lying and indolence. Its chief virtue was to offer a target for pre-legislative scrutiny, some of which was pleasingly robust, like that of the Commons P&CR Committee (p.3).

“Under the Government’s proposals, constituents themselves would not be able to initiate a recall petition. The circumstances that would trigger a petition – if an MP received a custodial sentence of 12 months or less, or if the Commons resolved that there [had been] ‘serious wrongdoing’ – are so narrow that petitions would seldom, if ever, take place.

“We are not convinced these proposals will increase public confidence in politics. Indeed, we fear that the restricted form of recall proposed could even reduce confidence by creating expectations that are not fulfilled.”

So misconceived and irredeemable was the Bill considered by some genuine reformers, like the Commons Committee, that they almost welcomed last month’s anticipated demise. As would I, were it not for my concern that any prospects of proper participatory recall for elected mayors, councillors, and Police and Crime Commissioners would have been even further postponed too.


Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

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