Recall: Right move to drop disastrous pledge

8 May 2013

Governments rarely receive praise for inaction - but that is precisely the right move on recall.

In today’s Queen’s Speech there was no reference to the pledge to legislate for recall. This is a system familiar in America, where citizens can petition to boot out naughty politicians between elections – or at least that’s how the theory goes.

The recall myth tells that it empowers the public. In reality it is a partisan tool wielded by powerful interest groups – to promote sore losers.

Recall is not the great leveller. It would give moneyed elites an even greater grip on our politics. No one wants to see the Taxpayers' Alliance and Unite spending millions chasing signatures on their latest recall petition.

Let’s make sure our Members of Parliament are properly subject to the laws of the land. Let’s make sure MPs found guilty of criminal offenses trigger automatic by-elections. But let’s pass on recall.

It has polluted American politics. And it's time its British proponents looked long and hard at the evidence. The Government have passed on recall for now, but any attempts to introduce it via the back door must be strongly resisted.

Four good reasons to oppose recall

1) It’s a partisan tool

Recall has become a conventional partisan campaign tool at every level of government in the US – which has allowed forces on the left and right the chance to re-run political battles after Election Day.

The 2012 Recall initiative against Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker was a straight rerun of the 2010 gubernatorial election – and proved the most expensive contest in the state’s history. According to the advocacy group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, candidates and outside groups spent more than $80 million in the governor's recall race. This compares to $37.4 million spent on the 2010 gubernatorial election

According to USA Today, $30 million of Walker's donations came from outside the state with Democratic opponent Tom Barrett receiving $20 million from labour unions.

Tit for tat recall bids in the Wisconsin State Senate in 2011 saw Democratic and Republican opponents attempt to tip the chamber’s political balance in midterm.

Kathleen Dolan, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee commented: "Wisconsin has become in some ways a microcosm of the partisan wars that have been raging nationally."

2) It rewards Big Money

Recall rewards established groups who are organised enough – and well resourced enough – to deliver petitions.

US academic Dr Elizabeth Garret has expressed her concern over the role of money in recall contests – following the successful recall of California Democratic Governor Gray Davis. She notes that “a group seeking ballot qualification can be certain of success if it is willing to pay enough”.

Many US recall drives rely on paid ‘circulators’ to generate signatures. Garret observes that a “sophisticated initiative industry” has grown up in California, including “companies which “offer clients a money back guarantee if they don’t produce enough valid signatures.” In 1999 these companies received an average of $1.50 per signature.

3) It’s expensive

The high costs of recall contests have led to unintended consequences.

In 1993 five members of the city council of Covina, Los Angeles County, were recalled because a 6% utility tax. As a result of the revenue being lost from the utility tax the library and fire station came under threat of closure and 42 city employees faced redundancy. The councillors who were elected as replacements then introduced an 8.25% tax.

4) It’s ineffective

In almost all cases US recall isn’t based on any allegations of criminal wrongdoing.

Johnstown, Colorado Mayor Mark Romanowski survived a recall election in 2011 that was prompted, in part, by residents’ opposition to a plan to switch from diagonal to parallel parking spaces. Ogden, Kansas, Mayor Jimmy Bonds lost a recall election in 2010 after firing two lifeguards. Opponents said he overstepped his bounds.

American states have varying signature thresholds to initiate recall at different levels. The problem is a higher bar rewards money; a lower bar opens the door to frivolous bids.


11 Responses to Recall: Right move to drop disastrous pledge

Colin Ogilvie 8 May 2013

Ok, good article on why recall is ineffective and could be abused. I hadn't thought of that. However what would your alternative be? Surely there must be a way of holding our elected members to account other than waiting to vote them out at elections? It looks as if no-body has a remedy for being stuck with a poorly performing or at worst dishonest and corrupt representative. Your press release isn't offering much hope here for the electorate.

keithunder 15 Feb 2014

The next election (this would only work if we had STV though). If people want a dishonest expense fiddling MP then they would have the choice!

Colin Ogilvie 8 May 2013

If I am truly awful and found to be incompetent, but honest in my job, I can be fired. Yet if you are an MP you can hold on for potentially 5 years! I agree with your point about a representative being found guilty of an criminal offence triggering a by-election, but what about those who do not meet their constituents, or have low attendance or voting records in the house. What about those who legally fill their offices with their family members. It is one law for them and another for the rest. I understand the Electoral Reform Society's fears over recall and agree, but to be honest your response here is looking quite toothless.

James Clayton 8 May 2013

Wow. That's a massively disappointing position from ERS. If there's to much money in US recall elections, a better response would be watertight party funding reform, not taking power away from voters.

The bigger problem with the 'recall' that the coalition were proposing was that is wasn't recall in any meaningful sense. Recall shouldn't exist to remove criminals. That should happen automatically. Recall should exist to hold representatives accountable to their electorates.

And I thought we'd all agreed arguing against democracy because it's expensive was a silly idea?

keithunder 14 Feb 2014

Recall could be used against MPs because they support unpopular minority views who should be and would be represented if we had STV.

Too many MPs support legislation which might sound good and make a populist sound bites, but is poorly researched and makes for bad laws.

The Daily Mail would love this kind of stuff and I suspect the people who would be targeted would actually be the better MPs who take their jobs seriously and the winners would be the puffed up buffoons who often make the most noise.

It is also incompatible with proportional representation. A minority MP in a 5 member constituency only needs one sixth of the vote to be elected, but would not survive a recall vote even if they managed to get 49% of the vote!

jamesclayton 14 Feb 2014

That's just wild speculation. Democracy is good for the right and the left. We all know STV would mean more seats for the Tories in the North, and more for Labour in the south, but the anti-reform lobby will always argue that it'll favour whichever is their preferred flavour of villain.

And by-elections are problematic wherever STV is used. That doesn't stop it working There are plenty of useable solutions. But there's no real reason to think there'd be significantly more than there are now, and when there was it'd only be short term disproportionally until the next election anyway.

keithunder 15 Feb 2014

I think my arithmetic is correct.

jamesclayton 15 Feb 2014

But irrelevant.

Julian Tisi 8 May 2013

I disagree. Your article explains very lucidly how the power of recall should NOT be enacted but it deals only with one way that recall could work.

It all depends on what are the standards for recall. If it became possible for a certain number of voters say to initiate a recall then what has happened in the US could easily happen here. Quite simply a defeated minority or a union or a pressure group or a tabloid campaign could end up triggering an election to attempt to overturn the previous verdict of the local electorate. This, as you say, would not improve democracy - quite the opposite.

But the Coalition plan (and the Lib Dem manifesto) recognised this problem and instead recommended the power of recall only for MP's "found guilty of serious wrongdoing". While that wasn't exactly defined, the broad principal is surely reasonable, so long as the rules were clearly defined (e.g. found guilty of an indictable offence or serious breaches of parliamentary rules, to be judged by judiciary, not parliamentarians).

Hopefully, such situations would be rare. In practice, most MPs who abuse rules or break the law in such a serious manner end up resigning. But what if they don't?

Anthony Tuffin 12 May 2013

I fully agree with the ERS on this. Even if the financial problem could be solved with strict controls, it would still be very tempting for the Opposition in a neary balanced parliament - especially during a period of Government unpopularity - to try to gain power before a General Election by recalling a few Government MPs in key marginal constituencies.
Moreover, recall is incompatible with STV in multi-member constituencies, which is the ERS's main object. We should not support anything that might make it harder to introduce STV.

Jan Kees 15 May 2013

STV elections would probably help weed out bad-behaving MPs.

Say a Labour MP who holds a safe seat abuses their expenses but still gets selected to stand as a candidate in the next election. They would probably still win, because there's no way hardline Labour voters would want a Conservative MP, even if the Labour candidate is tainted by scandal.

In an election conducted under STV, Labour voters could instead choose either another official Labour candidate or an independent who sides with Labour as their first choice. That way they can together deny election to a bad individual MP while still electing an MP who supports their political views.