Direct Democracy and the UK; The MP Recall

Plans for a ‘MP Recall System’ should provide greater accountability between elections and empower constituents but many have argued the system laid out by the government would achieve neither of these. Currently MPs can only be removed from their seat between elections if they are convicted of a crime which results in a prison sentence of 12 months or longer, a recall system would go some way to rectifying this. In theory it should allow constituency members to remove underperforming MPs from their seats between elections. Though the government plans to adopt a recall system critics say it does not go far enough and Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith claimed even the ‘worst MP in the world’ could avoid reprimand.

‘Direct democracy’ is a form of democracy where the people, not elected representatives, decide policy matters. Acknowledging the fact that population levels discount ‘pure direct democracy’ and that elected representatives are necessary most countries do use forms of ‘limited direct democracy’. The three most common expressions are the referendum, the initiative and the recall. All 3 see varying degrees of use in different countries; despite widespread use of recall and initiative the USA is one of only a few democracies to have never held a nationwide referendum. The UK has seen several referendums over the years but has never engaged in the use of the initiative or recall methods.

In the USA many states do have the ability to ‘recall’ elected representatives; in 1908 Michigan and Oregon became the first states to adopt recall procedures for state officials. The recall process varies from state to state but in general it follows these steps:

  1. An application is filed to circulate a recall petition.
  2. The petition is circulated and signatures are collected over a certain period of time.
  3. The petition is submitted to election official to verify signatures.
  4. If the petition has gained a specific number of valid signatures a recall election is held.
  5. If the majority vote in favour of ‘recalling’ the elected representative then they will lose their seat and a ‘by-election’ to replace them will occur. Though if a majority vote against a recall then the representative will be able to continue in their role.

Despite being more frequently used at local election level two state governors have been ‘successfully’ recalled; Lynn Frazier Governor of North Dakota in 1921 and Governor Gray Davis of California in 2003 (which led to the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor of California).

However the system proposed in the UK would be vastly different to this and according to MP Douglas Carswell it would not give the power of recall to the public but to a committee of ‘Westminster grandees’. The plan would only allow for a recall petition to be issued if an MP received a jail term or if a committee of MPs decided they should face a recall. This is different to the USA where the public can pursue and issue a recall petition without these restrictions.

Defenders of the ‘cautious’ nature of the system said it would counter unnecessary attempts to remove MPs who had done nothing wrong. Though those of an opposite opinion believe the plans boil down to MPs judging MPs, not empowering constituents and increasing accountability between elections which is the theoretical basis behind introducing a recall system. Many are of the belief that maverick and independent MPs would be vulnerable and Labour MP Fabian Hamilton suggested there was ‘scope for mischief’.

With the revelation in 2009 the many MPs had been abusing their expenses allowance calls for the introduction of greater accountability of MPs has increased. All three main parties backed some form of recall system in their 2010 election manifesto but critics of what has been proposed say the plans don’t go far enough and very little would change in terms of constituents ability to hold MPs to account between General Elections.


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