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.

What Difference Might Police and Crime Commissioners Make?

John Raine and Paul Keasey

The elections on 15th November 2012 of 41 Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) for the police force areas of England and Wales (outside London) represents the start of one of the biggest experiments in democratic governance. The new office of PCC, for which there is no known precedent in policing around the world, surely represents the most significant change in at least fifty years in how the police in England and Wales are governed and held to account. The replacement of Police Authorities (an assembly of nominated councillors and independent members) by PCCs has generated much public debate since it was first proposed back in 2010. Proponents argued that it would make the police more directly accountable and more responsive to local communities. Opponents, on the other hand, highlighted the potential for politicising the police and for local populist policies to take precedence over other vital, but less visible, national policing priorities; for example, counter-terrorism and serious organised crime.

Whatever the realities, it is clear that the introduction of PCCs has the potential to engender any number of far reaching and significant developments in the fields of policing, criminal justice and community safety, more broadly, and the change deserves to be closely monitored and evaluated.  While some of the key intended ‘outcomes’, such as better police performance and enhanced public confidence and trust in the police, may only become apparent over the longer term, there are other important issues concerning the change of democratic ‘process’ that are certainly of more immediate interest.

Among the many interesting questions raised in this respect three seem especially significant to us:  first, what might be the implications of the new framework for the nature and patterns of accountability, authority and influence regarding policing policy and practice?  Second, to what extent can the introduction of new framework be seen as being congruent with the Coalition Government’s policy goals of ‘localism’, enhanced democratic governance and citizen engagement? And third, how might the ‘local commissioning’ role of PCCs affect the wider criminal justice and community safety policy and institutional landscape beyond policing?

And what makes these questions particularly interesting is the complex interplay of actors and accountabilities involved in the new framework.  For example, the PCC, as a directly-elected office holder, will feel accountable to the local voters for local policing priorities and practices in their particular police area but it is the chief constable who remains wholly responsible for operational policing matters. At the same time, while local voters will have chosen their PCC primarily to address their concerns and priorities, there is also an accountability requirement on the PCC in relation to national policing priorities as established by the Home Secretary (through what is referred to as the ‘Strategic Policing Requirement’). Moreover, since most PCCs will have stood as candidates for a particular national political party they are also likely to feel some sense of accountability towards their political masters, whether/or both at national level or locally. Then one further element of complexity arises in the form of Police and Crime Panels (PCPs), these having been established in each police area, and comprising nominated local councillors, whose role is (also) to hold the PCC to account.

It will be fascinating to see just how these competing pressures on PCCs will work out in practice in different parts of the country; and how the tensions are resolved between, for example: national and local policing priorities; between local voter priorities and political party priorities; between the chief constables’ operational responsibilities and the PCC’s role in strategic oversight; and between the professional advice and authority of the chief constable on the one hand, and the scrutinizing attentions of the local Police and Crime Panel on the other.  Probably some sparks must be expected to fly in some quarters as opinions, backgrounds, sources of authority and personalities vie with one another to try and impose their way, and not least at a time of shrinking police budgets because of the austerity climate of the public finances.

A fuller description of such accountability tensions and implications is to be found in our recent article – Raine JW and P Keasey (2012) ‘From Police Authorities to Police and Crime Commissioners: might policing become more publicly accountable?’, International Journal of Emergency Services, 1, 2, 122-134.


John Raine is Professor of Management in Criminal Justice at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham.  He has been involved in criminal justice research, consultancy and teaching at Birmingham for some twenty-five years and has a strong track record of commissions for the Home Office, Lord Chancellor’s Department/Department for Constitutional Affairs/Ministry of Justice on aspects of policy and practice within the criminal (and civil) justice sectors).

Paul Keasey is a Doctoral Researcher in the School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham.  His doctoral thesis focuses on the impact of the Police and Crime Commissioners initiative and, in part, their affect upon public confidence in policing.  Paul is also a Superintendent in West Midlands Police.