A stronger Bill would undermine democracy, not repair it


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The Independent Online

Zac Goldsmith, the reform-minded Conservative MP for Richmond Park, is not satisfied with the Bill to give voters the right to “recall” their MP if guilty of “serious wrongdoing”. He calls the Bill “meaningless” and says that voters will realise that they have been “duped”.

In one respect, Mr Goldsmith is absolutely right. The Bill is a weak, almost homeopathic, version of the power of recall that appeared to be promised by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties before the last election. But this is a good thing. The only better thing would be to drop the Bill altogether and to be honest with people about why a recall power is a bad idea.

It seems as if it ought to be a solution to the distrust of politics and politicians, but it would, in practice, undermine trust further rather than repair it. The essence of democracy is that everyone accepts the result of a vote. A strong recall power, of the kind favoured by Mr Goldsmith, would mean that, no sooner had the result of a close election been declared, the political opponents of the successful candidate could start to look for excuses to collect signatures for a petition to demand a by-election. Imagine how such a power might be used by a minority in any constituency who feel strongly about, for example, abortion or an aspect of foreign policy.

There is already a recall power in the British constitution. It is called a general election. Any MP who is convicted of an offence and sentenced to more than 12 months in jail is automatically expelled from the Commons. Anything less than that is a matter for the MP’s constituents at the next election. The Recall Bill, which requires a vote of the Commons and then a petition signed by 10 per cent of the voters in a constituency to force a by-election, is cumbersome and unnecessary.

Anyone seeking to make MPs more accountable to their voters should seek, instead, to amend the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act so that elections are held every four years rather than five.