Zac Goldsmith is the Conservative MP for Richmond Park & North Kingston.
It¹s hard to exaggerate the level of voter disengagement with politics. The signs are all around us. Turnout at elections continues to sink, membership of political parties is at an all time low, radio phone-ins fizzle with rage whenever politics is discussed.
Some of my colleagues put this down to the expenses scandal, but we know that voter turnout has been sinking for years, and for most people, it¹s likely that the scandal merely confirmed a prejudice that was already there.
There is a sense that politics has become so detached and remote, that no matter how – or even if – people vote, nothing ever changes. When even a serious commentator like Jeremy Paxman admits he found the choice at a recent election so “unappetising” that he didn’t vote, we know that we are heading in a dangerous direction. After all, no country has ever walked away from democracy towards a brighter or better place.
I think we have reached one of those points in our history where democracy must evolve, as it did in response to the vast social changes triggered by industrialisation. From the first Reform Act of 1832 to universal suffrage in 1969, each step involved politicians reluctantly giving people more ownership of their democracy. No one today regrets any of those changes.
Our world has changed again beyond recognition, in large part due to the internet, and the almost limitless access to knowledge and information it has made possible.
But despite all this, the way we do democracy has stood still. We have a system where MPs are almost entirely insulated from constituents in between elections. After an election, the pressure is all top down from the party, not bottom up. There is no mechanism allowing voters to sack their MP, no matter how badly they are let down. Unless jailed for more than a year, an MP is inviolable. In some safe seats, even the election is a formality.
Then in the heat of expenses scandal, leaders of the three main parties seemed finally to appreciate the need – and public appetite – for reform, each promising to bring in a system of recall that would allow voters to hold MPs to account. It was a giant step.
True recall is simple. If a percentage of constituents – usually 20 per cent – sign a petition in a given time frame, they earn the right to have a referendum in which voters are asked if they want to recall their MP. If more than half say yes, there is a subsequent by-election.
As a mechanism to restore faith in politics, recall is second to none. It would break the stranglehold of ‘safe seats’, ensuring MPs can be held to account at all times, and it would help settle the strained relationship between people and power.
Of all the reform ideas on offer around the time of the election, recall was the only one that would actually have empowered voters. It caught people’s imagination.
But then the election happened, and the self-styled great reformer, Nick Clegg, was asked to draw up a Recall Bill. He did, and the result is nothing short of disgraceful.
Clegg’s Recall Bill is so far removed from genuine recall, it is recall in name only.
Instead of empowering voters to sack bad MPs, which is how recall works the world over, Clegg’s version hands power up to a committee of fellow MPs. In other words, what was supposed to be a tool to enable voters to hold the institution to account has been transformed by Clegg into a tool for enabling the institution to hold itself to account. It is a breathtakingly cynical attempt to convey an impression of democratic reform without actually empowering voters in any sense at all.
Putting it far too politely, the Political & Constitutional Reform Committee said that the Government¹s version of recall “would reduce public confidence in politics by creating expectations that are not fulfilled”. I call it a stitch up. After all, under Clegg’s Bill, an MP could stop doing surgeries, abandon Parliament, switch to an extreme party, break every promise, and even go on a five-year holiday, all without any threat of recall.
It is surely revealing that not a single organisation interested in democratic reform, or a single reform-minded MP backed the Lib Dem plans. Not one.
In the past, Clegg has explained his reluctance to pursue genuine recall on the basis that he¹d never get it through Parliament, and particularly the Conservative backbenches. He was proved wrong in December when my own Recall Bill was backed by a thumping great majority of 7-1, most of them Conservative.
A more plausible factor is his fear of what he refers to as “kangaroo courts”; or an ill-informed and easily manipulated mob. Much the same arguments were used to prevent women being given the vote.
Boil it down, and it is essentially an argument against all elections, and indeed democracy itself, because in true recall the only court is the constituency, the only jurors are the voters. It is theoretically possible of course that an MP might be unfairly removed from office under recall, but the same can be said of any election. And where recall happens, there are no known examples of successful vexatious recall attempts.
In short, voters can be trusted.
Clegg refused to amend his Bill, and there was never any prospect of self-respecting MPs backing it in Parliament. If the Government has binned it, that is good news.
But if the Government has also binned the promise that underpinned it, that¹s a different matter. Voters remember David Cameron¹s passionate promotion of recall before the election, and they will wonder why he has chosen to abandon the promise he so boldly made. They will conclude that it was just another cynical stunt. For a leader battling to appear authentic to voters, it¹s not a good look, and we must hope he reconsiders.
Clegg’s briefings to newspapers, meanwhile, are beyond parody. Despite protestations by some of his MPs that his Bill was a “step in the right direction”, and a “modest version of recall”, anyone interested in this issue knows it was neither. On the contrary, it would have taken democracy backwards. It was not recall; it was an insult to voters.
While these vital reforms have now been delayed, our leaders must know that the cynical manner in which they have been delayed will ultimately strengthen the cause of the reformers.