There seem to have been few people who did not offer their two cents on David Ruffley. From domestic violence charities to his political opponents, in the chattering classes and in the blogosphere, all kinds of people felt the need to share their opinion about whether it was appropriate for the Bury St Edmunds MP to remain in Parliament after accepting a police caution for assaulting a former partner.
However, save a few local political and religious leaders who have a platform from which to be heard, one group has been if not entirely silent then entirely powerless throughout: the constituents whom Mr Ruffley serves. Indeed, the people who sent him to the House of Commons to represent them have been side-lined from the discussion about his future, despite being the body to whom he should be directly accountable.
Now that Ruffley has said he will stand down at the General Election they will be denied the chance to pass judgement on him at the ballot box – yet his not-quite-resignation means he will remain as their MP for the next nine months.
This is an unsatisfactory state of affairs. Ruffley’s constituents will doubtless be wondering why it is in Westminster back rooms – and not in Bury St Edmunds – that decisions have been made about who should represent them in Parliament. Others have exercised power that should be in their hands.
Cases like this – and this is by no means an isolated incident, as Basingstoke (Maria Miller) and Portsmouth South (Mike Hancock) residents will attest – are why Richmond Park MP Zac Goldsmith tabled his Recall Bill earlier in this Parliament: a piece of legislation which would allow for a mid-term vote on whether an MP should remain in place if enough constituents who felt let down by their representative successfully petitioned for a ballot. It was sensible, overdue, and delivered on a promise. Caught up in the anti-politics mood, both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives pledged to introduce a ‘power of recall’ in the Coalition Agreement. We at the TaxPayers’ Alliance supported it, as did campaign groups from across the political spectrum.
Yet instead of Goldsmith’s bill, what we have been given by the Coalition is a grubby little compromise, with an announcement in the Queen’s Speech earlier this year that looks like recall, talks like recall, but very definitely is not recall. Importantly, it entails a parliamentary committee ruling on an MP’s behaviour before voters can start gathering the signatures needed to trigger a recall ballot. It’s impossible to know whether this committee would have judged Ruffley’s behaviour to be unacceptable; but the point is that it should be constituents – the people an MP is paid to represent – who make that decision. After years of MPs policing each other with what might charitably be described as mixed results, it’s clear that further centralising power in Westminster is not the way to go about delivering true recall.
Opponents fear kangaroo courts, with constituents irritated by MPs taking out their anger with green ink signatures. Such a fear can be assuaged by the evidence from elsewhere in the world where recall is on offer – but used sparingly. And those parliamentarians opposing this simple yet effective check on their behaviour betray a view of the electorate that does Westminster no favours.
Despite how it things can seem from a glance at Twitter, the vast majority of Britain’s voters are mature participants in a stable democracy – a democracy that would be even stronger if more of its power was returned to the public.
The Coalition's Recall Bill – supposedly designed to increase the electorate’s trust in MPs and the oft-disparaged political class – will do nothing of the sort. It is ironic that a move designed to bridge the gap between Westminster and the electorate will widen it yet further. The easiest way to restore some public trust in the political and parliamentary systems – and ensure that the power to hold errant MPs to account is in the right hands – is to deliver a genuine power of recall as written into the Goldsmith bill.
Andy Silvester is Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance