Yesterday, the Commons debate Zac Goldsmith’s amendment to introduce real recall – a measure to give voters the right to decide to sack their MP between General Elections. Sadly, the measure was voted down (the full details of the division are listed at the foot of this post), but it’s worth reviewing some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the debate.
The man himself opened proceedings:
“Today, hon. Members will be able to decide if we want a genuine voter-led system of recall with tight caps on spending and a high enough threshold to prevent vexatious abuse; or if we want a bogus system of recall that is possible only in the narrowest of circumstances and with prior permission of this House. Given that under the Deputy Prime Minister’s current proposals just six
Members in the past quarter of a century would have qualified even for the possibility of recall—and four of them resigned in any case—we can at least agree that the Bill in its current form is a waste of time, but it is worse than that. If enacted, it will confirm the suspicion of many voters that politicians pretend to listen but then deceive. We are only having this debate because at a certain point before the last election the mainstream parties felt obliged to do something to address the increasingly strained relationship between people and power, so it would surely be a madness for us to legislate today on the assumption that our voters cannot be trusted.”
His colleague Cheryl Gillan, who was an opponent of HS2 while in the Cabinet, expressed her concern that the measure might cow MPs from speaking out:
“When there is an unpopular policy in a constituency—HS2, for example—and the MP cannot speak out in public, for instance because they are a Front Bencher, would not my hon. Friend’s proposals make such a Member very vulnerable? Can he assure me that his proposals could not be used to blackmailMembers of Parliament who might not be able to speak out as they would wish?”
On the contrary, replied Goldsmith:
“It is no coincidence that many of the Members who have unfairly faced the greatest difficulty during this Parliament, the very people whom the critics of recall might imagine to be the most vulnerable to attack, have put their names to my amendments, and they were the first to do so—my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) and my right hon. Friends the Members for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and for Meriden (Mrs Spelman). They did so because they know that the existence of recall is the best possible way of challenging a noisy minority of critics either to put up or shut up. They know that when a recall petition fails to materialise, a Member will be able to turn to his or her tormentors and say, “The silent majority does not share your view.””
He was promptly supported from the Opposition benches by Kate Hoey:
“The hon. Gentleman referred to what my right hon. Friend Frank Dobson said last week. Will he also consider the example of my constituency, as I was one of only two Labour MPs who voted not to ban hunting? That was an issue that could have prompted calls for a recall, but it would not have happened, because people accept that individual MPs have very strong views on individual issues.”
Meanwhile, Sir Edward Leigh contributed a bald summary of much of the opposition to the amendment:
“A lot of us are worried about my hon. Friend’s amendment because we do not want recall procedures to be started on the basis of the votes we cast here or of what we say. Has he seen the amendment in my name and that in the name of my right hon. Friend Sir James Paice, which make it absolutely clear that no recall procedure should be initiated on the basis of how we vote or speak in this House? Would my hon. Friend be prepared to accept those amendments?”
In an unusual alliance, Lib Dem David Heath turned out to agree with him:
“If someone wants to do radical things in the House and represents a socially conservative constituency, they will face problems of this kind. It does not take much to get 3,500 people to say they do not support gay marriage or some other policy on which we have legislated. I want to concentrate, therefore, on genuine misconduct.”
He went on to present his party’s proposal that the right to recall should be approved by judges – an odd way to define direct democracy, to say the least.
Representing perhaps the worst elements of the opposition to genuine recall, Labour’s Kevan Jones denounced it because it might be used by people who disagree with him – an implicit recognition that his ideas may prove unpopular:
“In the United States this gives power to large numbers of small groups of well-organised individuals. People should google the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council—which is actually the libertarian wing of the Tea party and is where this proposal is coming from. I think this is very dangerous for progressive politics both in the United States and this country.”
That was hardly an argument against democracy, said Steve Baker:
“…if he is afraid that this extension of democracy will result in the supplanting of socialist Members with libertarian ones, why does he not just propose spending limits?”
But some went even further than Jones – Geraint Davies, for example:
“…in the round, if we allow the amendments of the hon. Member for Richmond Park to go through, it would be an intrinsic corruption of our democracy.”
Citing her personal experience, Nadine Dorries rose to refute the idea that a campaign by a newspaper would automatically imperil an MP:
“[While on ‘I’m a Celebrity…’] someone decided that I should be recalled and that they would get together a national petition. Out of the entire UK population of 65 million, one month to the day after the furore started, a national online, click and send petition—the type to which someone can contribute when they have had a bottle of red wine, or been down the pub, or read the local newspaper and got really angry with what they have read—had just 766 signatures. Facebook was a different story. The petition got just 16 likes.
So it is nonsense to say that the media can attack Members or whip up their constituents to get them recalled. There was no national newspaper, political programme or radio station that did not have it in for me during that month when I was in Australia…Anyone would think that every one of my constituents loathed me, but they did not. In fact, hardly any of my constituents signed that petition.”
The final vote on the amendment saw 166 votes in favour, and 340 against – the full list of who voted which way can be found here.