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From those who insist we need to implement Brexit for the sake of democracy, to those who protest the small electorate of the Conservative Party choosing the next Prime Minister as undemocratic, all sides of the political debate regard themselves as champions of democracy. Yet, a recent report from the Hansard Society shows that 47% of Brits believe they have no influence at all over national decision-making, a seven point increase from last year and 72% of those polled said the governing system could be improved a great deal. It is time to overhaul some of the most undemocratic aspects of the UK political system. The most important and perhaps the simplest measure is to reform the current recall system.

The current recall system, borne out of the expenses scandal, came to being in 2015. A recall petition can only be triggered in three different circumstances: if an MP is convicted in the UK of an offence and receives a sentence of a year or less; if they are suspended from the House by the Committee on Standards for a specified period; or if they make false or misleading parliamentary allowances claims. This triggers a petition, which constituents have six weeks to sign. A by-election will follow if a threshold of 10% of constituents is met. Since 2015, there have only been three cases of recall. Two of those recall petitions have been successful and triggered by-elections with both MPs losing their seats, such as Chris Davies losing Brecon and Radnorshire after the recent by-election. The other saw the DUP’s Ian Paisley Jr. MP narrowly surviving his petition. This may seem like a triumph for the policy of recall, but the strict conditions mean it has barely given constituents increased power or made our MPs more accountable.

We need to offer real recall if we ever hope to bridge the existing divide between politicians and constituents. At the time of the 2015 recall debate, Zac Goldsmith MP tabled amendments which instead offered a citizen-initiated recall system. The amendments set out a plan to remove the three conditions and offer “total recall”. Firstly, 5% of constituents were needed to call a recall petition, then 20% would need to sign the petition for a recall referendum and finally more than 50% voting to recall, would be required for the MP to lose their seat. 340 MPs voted down Goldsmith’s proposals, accusing the bill of trying to quash free debate and limit the ability of MPs to promote controversial policy. This seems particularly pertinent in light of the Hansard Society report where 66% of those polled thought that politicians should be able to say what’s on their minds regardless of what anyone else thinks. Moreover, many MPs were worried that lobby groups would be able to hold them to ransom, so that for example a socially conservative lobby could trigger a petition for an MP who voted for a socially liberal reform.

These worries are still applicable now, and so instead of a complete voter-led recall system, we should look at adding more extensive conditions to the existing legislation. Constituents should have the right to recall MPs who switch parties and who neglect their duty. In light of the 25 MPs who have either been suspended from their parties or changed parties since the last election, it is more important than ever to change the recall system. It is important to consider what constituents are voting for when they elect an MP. It is fictitious and dangerous to think that MPs are elected as individuals. Of course, some MPs may boast a strong personal vote, but most voters base their decision on the party the MP stands for. MPs have a duty to uphold the principles they stood for at an election, and changing party is a complete betrayal of this. Is it fair or right that constituents can be left for many years with an MP representing a party they did not vote for, such as Chuka Umunna MP who switched from being Labour, to Change UK and then to the Liberal Democrats?

The current recall bill also does not contain provisions to remove MPs who are guilty of neglecting their office. MPs can currently fail to attend votes or even refuse to see constituents, with no mechanism to stop this behaviour. The case of Jared O’Mara who was suspended from the Labour Party over racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments, and then cancelled constituency surgeries and casework, is a prime example of this. The definition of wrongdoing is complicated, such as whether MPs not taking up their seats would be a neglect of office, as Sinn Fein MPs have a mandate to do exactly this. However, this does not mean a definition should not be attempted. Real recall must be put in place to stop the potential abuse of such an important office.  Some MPs argue that this sort of recall would be open to vexatious recall attempts. This argument, however, just reiterates the divide between MPs and constituents. Moreover, a YouGov report showed that whilst a majority of those polled supported recall for MPs who change parties (52%) and do not hold surgeries (60%), they did not for when an MP simply supports a policy they disagree with (10%). MPs should not underestimate their constituents, who are not waiting eagerly to get rid of their MPs but deserve real recall.

Much of the debate about recall revolves around what it means to be an MP. There is a balancing act that each MP must face between constituents, party, government, and their own personal convictions. If we are going to have a recall system that leads to a fairer and more representative politics, then we need a clearer understanding of what duties MPs owe to their constituents. The Speaker’s Conference in 2010 recommended that a description should be published on the main functions of MPs, which would help with transparency of the role and accountability. With faith low in our governing system we must pin down this definition, for recall cannot be complete without it. Real recall comes with risks, but we must trust the voters if we are to ever restore faith in our political system.

Julia Hussain is currently undertaking a week’s work experience at Bright Blue. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.