Political scandals largely break down into two types: the illegal and the legal. Illegal scandals are fairly clear-cut: a politician breaks the law, and thus normally finds their position is untenable. Legal scandals are always more complex to judge and harder to predict: a politician has done something dubious, at least in the eyes of some, but within the law. The fate of MPs enmeshed in that situation is rarely clear, and there is no straightforward route to find a punishment that fits the offence, particularly as people often disagree on whether they deserve to be punished at all.
Take the case of Keith Vaz as an example. He doesn’t appear to have broken the law, but he is still caught up in a moral scandal. His colleagues on the Home Affairs Select Committee judged that his position as their chairman was untenable, which is some form of accountability at least, but beyond that the debate becomes opaque.
Some people, like Jeremy Corbyn, think that the story is a purely private matter which reflects in no way on his role as an MP. Others feel hat he has outraged public decency and ought to be ejected from Parliament. There will no doubt be a wide range of opinions on the spectrum, all the way from “So what?” to “Bring me my pitchfork.”
There’s currently no satisfactory way of testing the strength or validity of these different views. Depending on your perspective, you might be annoyed that someone like Vaz has a guaranteed right to stay in Parliament until the next election, or you might feel it deeply unfair that he will have to labour under a cloud of moral outrage for years to come.
Often in such cases, the politician’s fate is heavily influenced by the fickle winds of the media on that particular day. The fact that such scandals tend to come down to the MP’s personal decision to resign or not also means that they are more likely to survive if they have no sense of shame whatsoever – not necessarily the right quality to promote.
Here’s where a right of recall would prove useful. If Vaz’s constituents had the power, if they so wished, to rise up and expel him as their MP, there would at least be a definitive answer to questions over his conduct. If they gathered sufficient signatures, held a vote and got rid of him, we’d learn that the Leicester East electorate thought his behaviour beyond the pale and those who argue it is simply a private matter might have to reassess their position. If they declined to do so, we’d learn that voters are somewhat less bothered about this kind of thing than the press tend to be and some might have to quench a bit of their moral outrage.
Whatever your view, having such scandals judged definitively by the electorate would surely be better than leaving them to the arbitrary process of trial by media.