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Parliamentary Elections (Recall and Primaries)

Volume 497: debated on Tuesday 13 October 2009

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the recall of Members of the House of Commons in specified circumstances; to provide for the holding of primary elections in such circumstances; and for connected purposes.

It is not easy in the current climate to recall the emotions that we felt as new MPs or that mingled sense of pride and awesome responsibility when we heard the returning officer read out our names. Most hon. Members felt in their bones that entering the House was one of the greatest and most exalted moments in their lives, yet today we find ourselves scorned.

The standing of the House has never been lower. In a reversal of 300 years of democratic development, the very fact of being elected to public office is sometimes, it seems, regarded as a disqualification. We all know that this issue is not just about allowances. It is true that a thorough overhaul of the system is essential—I think everyone accepts that now—but what we have come across in our constituencies is more than a sense of anger about specific and identified expense claims. Rather, it is a more generalised rage against politicians as a class: a sense that MPs have become remote and self-serving, and that we have become spokesmen for our parties in our constituencies instead of the other way around.

We have all heard, on doorstep after doorstep, “You’re all the same. It doesn’t make any difference how I vote, nothing ever changes.” My Bill aims to address those concerns. I want to restore dignity to this House and independence to its Members. I want to shift power from the Executive to the legislature, from parties to Back Benchers, and from Government to people.

Our constituents have a point when they complain that it does not matter how they vote. At four of the last five general elections, fewer than one in 10 parliamentary constituencies changed hands. The fifth of those was, of course, the Labour landslide of 1997, but even then, more than 70 per cent. of seats were held by the parties that already controlled them. In other words, most of us represent pocket boroughs. As long as we retain the right to stand under the colours of our parties, we have tenure. Our incentives are thus twisted. Instead of answering outwards to their voters, MPs in safe seats are encouraged by the system to answer upwards to their Whips.

My Bill would abolish the concept of a safe seat, eliminate pocket boroughs and open candidate selection to the wider public through open primaries. It would allow local people to have a direct say over who gets to be their MP in the first place, and give local people and local parties the right to petition their returning officer to organise open primary ballots. It is right that that should remain a matter of choice—this is not about legislating for political parties in a free society.

Two months ago in Totnes, we saw how enthusiastic voters are about having a say in party nominations. More than 26 per cent. of registered voters—more than 16,000 people—took part. That gives the winner of that primary a head start in the general election and, for that reason, I hope that it will be adopted by other parties. Indeed, Members on both sides of the House have since indicated that they, too, favour the democratisation of the selection process.

One serious objection levelled against open primaries since then is the cost. The Totnes primary cost the Conservative Party somewhere in the region of £40,000, mainly in postage, yet my Bill is specifically designed to deal with that problem, and at zero additional cost to the taxpayer. Under my Bill, local people—supported by one or more parties—could petition their returning officer to organise a primary contest at the same time as a pre-existing local or European ballot. The primary election would be piggy-backed on to an election already due to take place. The returning officer would have to include an extra ballot paper with the names of those on the shortlist. Each party that chose to take part would have to pay the marginal additional cost for having its ballot paper included, but it would be a cost of hundreds not thousands of pounds.

At the same time, my Bill would provide for a recall mechanism—that is, a way to trigger a by-election where a Member of this House was guilty of serious wrongdoing. Plainly such a measure would need safeguards. We would need to ensure that it could not be triggered frivolously or on partisan grounds. We would need to guarantee that charges could not be levelled against MPs simply because they had voted with their conscience. A recall vote should be entered into—as the Book of Common Prayer says of matrimony—“reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly”. Triggering a primary would require the backing of a significant number of local people, and it would also require confirmation of serious wrongdoing by the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

If we trust the people, we must trust their judgment in being able to spot vexatious attempts at recall. Let us remember what happened in Winchester in 1997. It was the closest we have ever come to a recall ballot in this country. The seat having been lost by two votes, the result was challenged by the loser in the courts. In what was in effect a judicially sanctioned recall election, a majority of two was turned into a majority of more than 10,000. Anyone looking to trigger vexatious recall ballots against a good MP would quickly learn why recall ballots are rare, even in California. It is the knowledge that they are possible that makes recall ballots so effective.

I was delighted to hear the Prime Minister say in Brighton that he backed the idea of recall elections. I gather that the Secretary of State for Justice told “The World at One” today that he would like to see recall ballots included in a future party manifesto. Here is his opportunity to make good on those words and back this Bill.

Our party invented and developed the idea that laws ought to be passed by elected representatives. Parliamentary democracy is Britain’s greatest export, our supreme contribution to the happiness of mankind. It shames me—as I know it does you, Mr. Speaker, and other honourable Members—that in this country, the home of the mother of Parliaments, we see the democratic process held in contempt, its practitioners despised. For the truth is that no one has yet come up with a better alternative. If we do not have parliamentary democracy, we are left with anarchy or fascism.

So I urge hon. Members to support my Bill today, as a first step towards restoring the authority, legitimacy and standing of this House Let today mark the nadir of the expenses crisis, the moment at which things began to improve. We can still turn that catastrophe into a victory if we use it to reform and strengthen the mechanisms of democratic accountability. My Bill would restore purpose to the ballot box, dignity to the legislature and honour to the political process, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mr. Douglas Carswell, Mr. Graham Allen, Mr. David Drew, Norman Lamb, Jo Swinson and Norman Baker present the Bill.

Mr. Douglas Carswell accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October and to be printed (Bill 148).