Holding my MP to account on the Recall issue

24 10 2014

I don’t tend to get involved in direct democracy very much but I think the issue of recalling MPs is important. In the modern slacktivist style, I picked up and sent a templated 38Degrees letter to my MP, Roger Godsiff. I must confess I know nothing about him and his general political outlook. It may be that we agree on some things, probably not all. I probably agree with him on more than I would typically agree with Zac Goldsmith – but I believe strongly in Zac Goldsmith’s amendments to the recall bill. They strike me as reasonable including sensible safeguards and as being completely democratic which the current proposed bill certainly is not. You can read about Goldsmith’s tabled amendments here – I think you will find them hard to disagree with.

The Rt. Hon. Mr Godsiff MP replied to with a mail  I suspect was every bit as templated as my own. I can’t really blame him for that given I’d not made the effort to author something unique myself. What I can blame him for is the fact that his letter was patronising and deflective. It talked about the complexity of the issue but dealt with none of it. Worst of all, it failed to tackle the key issue at hand – that what this fundamentally comes down to is whether you believe the people are trustworthy enough to decide the circumstances in which their representative should be recalled or whether the circumstances within which this is acceptable should be determined by the MPs themselves. Or, it did tackle it in a way, by suggesting lots of occasions where he felt it might be dangerous to allow people the power of recall – that is, situations where he disagreed with the reasons he ascribed the people to give.

This is important so I felt I would share my arguments. I would also share Mr Godsiff’s note, but it does have a confidentiality clause in the disclaimer at its foot so I won’t share it in the interests of respecting that.

Mr Godsiff,

Thank you for kindly for your reply but I do not find that your response adequately deals with the matter at hand, rather it deals in a series of irrelevant deflections related to the US system.
The fundamental question is whether you believe that, in a democracy, the people should have the power to hold their elected representative to account and remove them from office where the people believe they are no longer fit to hold that office. Mr Goldsmith’s proposed amendments are intended to ensure it is up to the people to decide what being no longer fit for office means, not that the very people supposedly being held to account limit this in such a narrow way as to be meaningless and to return no power at all to the people.
Let me deal with each or your deflections in turn.
  • No other European countries offer similar powers – I see no relevance for this point whatsoever. Just because democracy is deficient in comparable nations and they have a similarly entrenched political elite that does not want to hand power to its people, does not mean that we should follow that lead.
  • Recall in California – the implication here seems to be that you don’t believe the people of California were well enough informed to decide whether or not their Governor was at fault in his managing of the state’s energy prices. That they were too stupid to identify the real issue at hand and took it out on a powerless Governor. Rank elitism. Do you not see that what you think about the specific policy issue here is not the question? The question is not whether or not you feel Mr Gray Davis had erred sufficiently from his duty as to be recalled, the question is whether a sufficient proportion of the Californian electorate felt that he had.
  • Issues of moral/personal standing – just as I do not personally believe that energy companies should ride roughshod over people and those in public office seeking to prevent that should be held to some account, nor do I believe that an affair is sensible reason to recall an MP. But, again, this misses the point – should a reasonable proportion of the electorate (and I believe the proportions in Mr Goldsmith’s amendments are reasonable) be sufficiently offended or morally outraged by the behaviours of their representative as to believe they can no longer properly represent them, then yes, why should they not be recalled?
  • Special interest groups – I’m starting to feel a little like a broken record here, but here goes. I couldn’t have less sympathy for the views of America’s religious right, but again, whether I agree with them or not (or whether you do) is separate to the issue at hand. Campaigning organisations have every right to try to push for recall ballots – but Mr Goldsmith’s amendments actually make it less likely that minority interests such as these would be able to push through a recall because of 20% threshold to trigger a referendum and the requirement for a majority of the electorate to vote for recall in that referendum. Yes, they may be able to trigger the 5% of of the electorate required to create a recall petition in the first place – but to even make the 20% threshold at the next level seems unlikely for most minority groups. If they can achieve the threshold and can then win the subsequent election then, no matter how abhorrent you or I think their views, they are entitled to recall their representative and it’s clearly unfair to call them a minority group. That, surely, is the very essence of a properly functioning democracy.
So, I agree that it is a more complex issue than is typically being portrayed, but I don’t accept that your response deals with that complexity, it seeks to deflect from it. In your next reply, I’d appreciate it if you could deal explicitly with the following areas:
  • Why is it that you apparently believe the people of your constituency are not equipped to decide for themselves whether their representative should be recalled and that it is better for Westminster to decide a narrow set of criteria within which it is acceptable for recall to happen?
  • Do you agree that the criteria set out in the bill are correct? My view is that the only criterion should be the view of the people, that’s democracy. You may not be willing to go that far, but if you at least believe the current criteria laid out are too narrow – what, in your view, should they be?
  • Do you agree that, once these criteria for recall decided by Westminster are met, a by-election should be triggered on the basis of a petition signed by just 10% of the electorate, a figure so low that it is hard to conceive a circumstance where it will not be achieved? If you don’t believe this is an appropriate proportion then what level would you set it at?
  • Do you agree with me that is preferable that any system of recall should insist that a majority of the electorate in that constituency have the final say on whether an MP is recalled or not?
  • Do you agree with me that the checks and balances set out in Mr Goldsmith’s proposed amendments are sufficient that opportunistic, frivolous or vexatious petitions for recall are unlikely to pass even the first stage requiring 5% of the electorate to be petitioned, almost certain to fail at the second stage where 20% is required and would without question fail to win a majority in a recall referendum? If you feel these checks and balances are insufficient and would like to argue for the existing bill or something different, I’d be interested to hear your view.
This is a complex issue – but fundamentally it comes down to one thing –  do you trust the electorate to decide for themselves whether an MP should be recalled or do you believe MPs themselves should dictate the circumstances within which that is seen to be appropriate.
I look forward to your reply.
Andrew Jerina