This last Parliament has showed why we need a Right of Recall
In a sensational result at the last election, Jared O’Mara – helped by Momentum – toppled Nick Clegg, the former Deputy Prime Minister, in the marginal seat of Sheffield Hallam, making O’Mara, who lives with cerebral palsy, the first elected MP on the autism spectrum.
From that point onwards, Sheffield Hallam has had intermittent to no parliamentary representation. On the advice of his GP, O’Mara closed his constituency surgery and did not attend the House of Commons for months at a time. Every member of his staff had reportedly resigned or been sacked, leaving casework unprocessed and his constituents helpless.
In Sheffield’s The Star, one constituent, seeking help for her son, complained that O’Mara had cancelled all his appointments with her. “I am livid, I am absolutely livid. I need an MP because, as it stands, these applications drag [on] for a long time unless you have got someone who can push it through.”
Although O’Mara was reinstated to the party in July 2018, he resigned from it nine days later. He faced pressure to resign from his constituents again and again; he compared his critics to “hooligan[s] on the terraces threatening the referee whilst drinking flat lager and smelling of processed meats.”
Finally, O’Mara announced his resignation in July this year, after reports emerged that he had sexually harassed a 20-year-old employee, only for him to “postpone” his resignation two months later. O’Mara will not stand for re-election, but if he did and lost his seat, he would be eligible for a £22,500 Loss of Office Payment.
For two years, constituents of Sheffield Hallam have been stranded without the representation for which they voted. They voted for a Labour MP; they got an absent one instead. They have had nowhere to turn – convention bars MPs from processing casework outside their constituency – and no way to remove O’Mara. The most vulnerable residents of Sheffield Hallam have especially been let down.
Sheffield Hallam has provided a prime but exceptional example of how MPs are currently able to run local fiefdoms, unaccountable to their voters between elections. But Sheffield Hallam is only part of the terrifying hole in our electoral system that this last Parliament has revealed.
In a much less drastic way, large swathes of the country over the last two-and-half years have also been left with MPs that do not represent them.
Under the refuge of the current political pandemonium, at heart-racing speeds, MPs have resigned from the parties for which their constituents voted, replaced them with parties that their constituents expressly rejected at the last election, and formed new parties without any mandate or confirmatory hearing from their voters.
Where constituents elected Conservatives – South Cambridgeshire, Broxtowe, Totnes, Grantham and Stamford, Bracknell, Hastings and Rye, East Surrey, Eddisbury – or Labour – Sheffield Hallam, Birkenhead, Liverpool Wavertree, Stockport, Ilford South, Nottingham East, Luton South, Penistone and Stocksbridge, Streatham, Enfield North, Dudley North, Bassetlaw, Liverpool Riverside – they found within two-and-a-half years that their representative had chosen to resign the party whip for which they had voted.
In South Cambridgeshire, Heidi Allen was elected a Conservative, joined Change UK, became an Independent, joined The Independent Group, and finally joined the Liberal Democrats. She has been in four parties in two years. Not once did she ask her constituents if they agreed with her.
Currently, two in five Liberal Democrat MPs are defectors from other parties. None of them are expected to retain their seats. While still serving their present constituents, many of them announced that they will stand in seats where they have a higher chance of winning at the next election. Hence, Chuka Umunna is moving from Streatham to the Cities of London and Westminster; Luciana Berger is moving from Liverpool Wavertree to Finchley and Golders Green; Sam Gyimah is moving from East Surrey to Kensington; Angela Smith is moving from Penistone and Stocksbridge to Altrincham and Sale West.
What message does it send to their former and prospective constituents that they no longer want to represent their current constituents, and rather will represent other constituents that instead agree with their views at the next election? It is astonishing for elected politicians to take voters for granted in this way.
Some would retort that we elect MPs, not parties, so MPs should be allowed to change parties as they wish. But this isn’t how the rest of us see it. Party-based voting is strong: most of the public cannot name its local MP. Even if MPs had personal votes, they implicitly stand on the manifesto promises of the party that selected them to stand for election. Two-thirds of the public believe that MPs should vote for their constituents’ wishes, even when this goes against their own judgment (unsurprisingly, only 13% of MPs agree). Presumably, voting for their constituents’ wishes entails voting with the party that constituents voted to represent them.
Thankfully, this last Parliament also offers a solution to the problem it has presented. It was in this Parliament that constituents recalled two MPs – Fiona Onasanya in Peterborough and Chris Davies in Brecon and Radnorshire – after they were tried in the courts.
Presently, MPs can only be recalled under certain conditions, such as long suspensions from the House of Commons, short custodial prison sentences, or convictions for expenses. Why shouldn’t voters be allowed to recall their MP at any time that they feel that their MP no longer represents them?
Whether you agree with the direction of the defections or not, it has been a damning revelation of this last Parliament that an MP can deprive constituents of their voice in the House of Commons, and there is nothing that their constituents can do about it. In much of the country, the system has left voters with MPs serving parties that they didn’t vote for – but at its worst, residents of Sheffield Hallam have seen how the current system can leave vulnerable and desperate neighbours without an MP to which they can turn. It is a theft of democracy – and a Right of Recall can fix it.
Matteo Baccaglini is President of the Oxford Hayek Society.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily of the Oxford Hayek Society. A version of this article originally appeared in 1828.