Luke Williams makes the case for expanding the ability for elected officials to be removed from office, expanding on the recall petition system introduced in 2015.
“I’m Shocked! Shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” Police Captain Renault declares in the 1942 classic film Casablanca. Only for the croupier to sheepishly approach him, and hand him over his own winnings. In a film, unsuitable people being in power can give us a great punchline, but in real life, it’s a lot less funny. These types of people should be confined to comedies, but these days they, unfortunately, are not.
In parliament, we have our own class of politicians who are unfit for office due to a whole host of reasons, one of the most straightforward being that they are embroiled in irredeemable scandal. Rob Roberts, Chris Pincher, Claudia Webbe, Jonathan Edwards and Margaret Ferrier are some MPs still in office that come to mind. Though in the recent political chaos and fast-moving new cycles, it’s very easy to forget they are even there.
In an ideal world, certain MPs would self-reflect and make way for a representative who can be effective and whom the voters want in office. But unfortunately for us, that no longer seems to be the modus operandi. For politicians embroiled in scandal, the new playbook is to keep your head down, wait for the media storm to end, and then ride out the rest of your term cashing in £84,000 a year. Having the party whip removed or being shunned by colleagues doesn’t seem to be obstacles.
The issue here surrounds the complete lack of recourse for voters. In the real world, there are consequences for your actions. If regular people are found to have committed misconduct or gross misconduct in their job, or their role is untenable in some other way, they can be sacked very quickly. Their bosses don’t have to wait up to 5 years to give them the boot. Members of parliament answer to the voters, yet outside of the normal election cycle, the voters only have recourse against rogue officials in a select few circumstances.
While a 1981 act of parliament automatically removes any MP sentenced to more than a year in prison, previously there was no ability to remove MPs for any other reason. That changed with the Recall of MPs Act, which received royal assent in March 2015 and sets out a few conditions under which a recall petition can be triggered. These are; an MP receiving a custodial or suspended sentence of less than a year, a suspension from the house of commons for at least 10 sitting or 14 calendar days, or a conviction for providing false or misleading expense claims. If one of these conditions is met, a recall petition is automatically opened, and if more than 10% of voters sign it, a recall by-election is called.
The Recall of MPs Act was a great start, and under its provisions, we have seen two MPs successfully be recalled. The first was Fiona Onasanya, a Labour MP who was expelled from the party after her conviction and jail sentence for perverting the course of justice. The second was Christopher Davies, a Conservative who faced a recall by-election after triggering the clause regarding parliamentary expenses.
It’s clear to me that given the opportunity, the voters would have utilised their power in other instances. But the limited scope of the act, and certain loopholes within it, mean that often a recall campaign is not an option. Rob Roberts avoided a recall because his suspension was not given by a specific committee. In another case, Claudia Webbe has been ineligible for a recall because even though she committed a crime, she was ultimately given community service rather than a custodial or suspended sentence. Meanwhile, Margaret Ferrier’s long-awaited sentencing for serious breaches of COVID restrictions led to community service - meaning she also won’t be eligible.
All three of the examples have had their respective party whips removed. Their political careers are dead in the water, and they have no support to continue from constituents or colleagues. They now hold their seats purely for the benefit of themselves, rather than that of their constituents. If they do re-run at the next general election, they most likely would be defeated, but without the backing of their respective parties, the likelihood is they don’t even try.
While this voting system exists, we must entrust and empower the voters with a broader ability to recall, anything less than this leaves a severe democratic deficit. If the voters feel like their local representative is not doing their job, or more broadly doesn’t deserve their job, there should be an ability to force a recall election for any reason. Whether it’s due to a scandal, abuse of office, corruption, neglect of duties, incompetence, or even political reasoning like positions on crucial pieces of legislation.
Parliamentary seats do not belong to any one person, they ultimately belong to the voters, who entrust one person to get up every day and work for them. They should have a mechanism to withdraw that trust at any time.
Luke Williams is a 21-year-old Labour Member from the North West. He is also a member of the Governing Council of UK pressure group Unlock Democracy, and tweets at @Luke_Williams26.