Research on Open Data and Transparency

Total Recall?

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The government has returned, once again, to the idea of recalling MPs if they behave in a particularly poor way. This means that a by-election can be triggered by a petition from constituents in certain circumstances. As the BBC explains

Voters could trigger a by-election if the House of Commons resolves that an MP has engaged in “serious wrongdoing”. A by-election would be forced if more than 10% of constituents signed a petition over an eight-week period after the Commons ruled an MP could face recall.

See this excellent research note by the House of Commons library. Not everyone is convinced this is a good idea. The title of this great article by David Judge says it all ‘If I Were You I Wouldn’t Start from Here’. Neither was the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee impressed. MP Zac Goldsmith has gone one stage further, arguing for ‘full recall’, where a petition to trigger an election can be created for any reason by constituents, rather than just when the House of Commons decides there has been ‘serious wrongdoing’. I can foresee three potential problems:

Problem 1: What the government are giving isn’t what the public want

Under the current government proposals, as David Judge puts it, MPs would ‘have to have done something ‘breathtakingly wrong’ to be subject to recall under the Government’s proposals’. Interestingly, the public appears to believe there should be a number of circumstances under which recall should have an effect:


Nick Clegg has already ruled out recall elections for laziness but the public clearly feels lying, expense fiddling and, to nearly a quarter, having an affair should trigger a recall election. The danger is that if recall is introduced in the way the government wants it will be seen as a ‘sham’ (like it was last time it was proposed).

But if it passed, especially as ‘full’ recall, it might not be easy because…

Problem 2: It can get political

One reason MPs don’t like recall is that it can get political. In parts of the US, recall has become highly politicised. In Wisconsin, the combination of a controversial ‘tea-party’ supported Governor Scott Walker and a thin Republican majority led to a series of ‘recall’ elections triggered by both sides intended to shift the balance of power in the state legislature-see here. See also these two councillors facing recall over their city redevelopment plans.

Problem 3: It grows over time

In 19 US states there is recall at different levels, from state legislature down to local school boards. The evidence from the US is that recall can grow over time-this article records 150 elections in 2011 with a 50% success rate in removing officials. In 2013 the numbers have gone down slightly but of ‘107 recalls, 73 were ousted; 51 officials lost a race, and another 22 resigned’ meaning a very high ‘68% removal rate’. Spivak argues that using recall has become easier and cheaper due to information technology.

In 2013, the last time recall was proposed, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee recommended the government ‘abandon its plans’ as

We are not convinced that the proposals will increase public confidence in politics. Indeed, we fear that the restricted form of recall proposed could even reduce confidence by creating expectations that are not fulfilled… Under the Government’s proposals, constituents themselves would not be able to initiate a recall petition.

Let’s see this time…

N.B. the title was not just a clever pun-as you may know Arnold Schwarzenegger became Governor of California via a recall ballot in 2003.



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