We need a power of recall and we need it now

Not everything can or should be seen through the prism of constitutional politics.  Yet, some, it would appear, are so caught up in that hothouse that they are failing to see what is in the common weal (to borrow a phrase).

This week’s Sunday Herald reported on the latest allegations facing Bill Walker and considered UK Government proposals to introduce a power of recall of MPs.  (I’d post a link but it’s impossible to find).  It follows Bill Walker’s refusal – some might say obduracy – to stand down following his expulsion from the SNP.  The newspaper’s analysis revealed that the proposals as they currently stand would only apply to MPs and not to parliamentarians in any of the devolved jurisdictions.

It means that even if they wanted to, the people of Dunfermline could not rid themselves of their MSP.  Unless he does the honourable thing and resign, they – and we – will be stuck with him until the next election.  And that seems highly unlikely given his defiant stance to date.

So, opinion was canvassed.  Lord George Foulkes rose to the challenge and declared that he would raise the matter in the House of Lords to try and get any UK bill extended to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Yet, bizarrely, both the Scottish Greens co-Convenor and an SNP MSP suggested that this was not something Westminster should legislate for.  Patrick Green MSP said:  “I certainly wouldn’t want Westminster to amend its bill so that it applies to the Scottish Parliament.  Holyrood should be in control of its own rules.

And James Dornan, MSP for Glasgow Cathcart, added:  “Clearly, there are issues with these politicians, but these matters should be decided by Scotland’s Parliament.

I don’t disagree with the principle being espoused.  The Scottish Parliament should be in a position to legislate on all matters pertaining to its operation, including electoral arrangements.  But that is some way off, no matter how hard some of us might wish it.

In the meantime, are they serious?  That because Scotland lacks the constitutional powers for its Parliament, we should not take advantage of a legislative opportunity to fix a problem that has recently come to light?

Who cares who does it?  Having blogged previously in favour of such a power of recall, what I want to know is how and when, with the emphasis being on a solution being found sooner than later.

Bill Walker’s sticking two fingers up at the democratic process – and also Eric Joyce’s – has exposed a fault line in that process.  That once they are elected, we cannot rid ourselves of politicians we no longer want, or we consider no longer meet our standards.  Clearly, with any legislation (whoever passes it) safeguards would have to be built into such a power to prevent frivolous attempts to remove sitting members.  It is easy to see how it might be misused by parties or community groups with a bee in their bonnet.

The current stushie over wind farms is a case in point.  If we had a power of recall, anti-windfarm campaigners, if they were feeling mischievous and were funded by the likes of Trump, could launch a campaign for the recall for high-profile supporters of renewable energy.  Like the First Minister.

But safeguards could be provided.  No matter where the legislation is passed.

Politicians would do well to remember that democracy is not theirs but ours.  To be fair to the parties in this situation, and in particular, the SNP who pushed Bill Walker out – Eric Joyce resigned from Labour before he could be shoved out of the fold – they have done their bit.  The SNP followed its disciplinary process and reached the obvious conclusion:  there is no place for Bill Walker in its parliamentary grouping nor in its party.  So, it should now do what it can to remove him from the Parliament too.

If there is no place for him in the party, there is no place for him in Holyrood.  The sooner the electorate has powers to act to remove the likes of Walker from his comfy berth and salary the better.  It should not matter which legislature gives it the tools to do the job.

Sometimes, there are more important and urgent matters to be considered than constitutional niceties.  And politicians, especially those advocates of more powers for Holyrood, would do well to remember that.  We don’t all inhabit the hothouse;  some of us have to live in the real world.




19 thoughts on “We need a power of recall and we need it now

  1. Has Walker been convicted of anything, yet? Is there any evidence to support the claims made against him. I merely ask as one who has suffered because of the unfounded and fanciful accusations of a vindictive person. I lost a job and had to take recourse to the law to seek compensation because an accusation was deemed by many to be enough to confirm guilt. This, despite it being widely known that the accuser was aserial liar.

    If and when, Walker is found guilty, then let the full eight of the law fall upon him. Until then, using that standard of Scottish law, let us deem Mr. Walker innocent until proven otherwise.

  2. How about any criminal conviction means instant expulsion as a politician, be it MP, MSP or councillor.

    Those who make the laws must display behaviour of the highest standard.

    Simple and easy to implement. Minor offences such as littering, majority of driving offences and some civil ones would be exempt.

    Such as system could not be abused.

    Twelve months is not enough. What if for example a politician was convicted of posessing child pornography and received a three month jail sentence? What would stop them holding their seat for four years?

    No, politicians must be beyond reproach.

    And at the risk of being ageist, why do we have a 71 year old politician? There should be an upper age limit on entering a parliament in lines with the state retirement age. Nothing stopping them remaining politically active, but let’s not have a government like France where at one point they had an 84 year old in charge!

    • Such a system could not be abused? Really? You honestly think that? It’s an engraved invitation to organise to have a rival framed for a qualifying crime. Unless of course you think that only the guilty are convicted in court, and in that case I diagnose terminal naivety.

      And on a second point, compulsory retirement ages are being phased out. It’s about whether someone is capable and competent, not about what age they are. I’d rather have an experienced 71-year-old with a wise head and political nous, than a young hot-head with a lot to learn (and nobody there to teach him).

  3. Unlike Mr.Joyce, Mr.Walker has not been found guilty of any crime, so until he is may I suggest that articles such as yours refrain from the absurd position of trying to apportion blame, and consequently adversely influence a person’s livelihood, without bothering to rely on proof.

  4. Patrick Green MSP? Hmm, must be a new addition to the ranks…

  5. I agree that we need the power of recall and I would be quite happy for Westminster to fix it now rather than wait for the powers to be available at Holyrood. However I don’t think that you can pick and choose recall circumstances by having ‘safeguards’ and I believe that recall would have a real impact on the Scottish polity. If there are enough local votes to force a recall on windfarms, then a recall is quite legitimate. If the recalled candidate wins the subsequent election, then that is a major defeat for the anti-windfarm forces. If the candidate loses, then that is an alarm call to Government that they may be pushing ahead faster than the electorate is comfortable with. Whatever the issue, this is a valid signalling system between voters and Government.

    When California Republicans recalled Gray Davis it was obviously a partisan action but they had read the popular will correctly and won the subsequent election. In any recall attempt a rational actor will balance the possibility of success against the risk of failure. I suspect that the real challenge would come in irrational actor situations, e.g., where a local hospital is closed or loses its A&E department. Even without recall, we’ve seen the political consequences of this north and south of the border where anti-closure candidates unseat incumbents at the following election. Recall would also limit the scope of Governments to manipulate timing, e.g., doing something controversial four weeks after winning a General Election in the hope that it will have been forgotten by the next one.

    • i am fast going off this idea…. I can see how the powerful and well resourced might use it for nefarious ends, to subvert democracy if you like. Thinking about last May’s landslide, and the fact that some parties don’t really accept its legitimacy, well you can see that we’d have politicians constantly fighting for their place from people defeated but who don’t accept that. Hmm, needs more thought…

      • Not a fan of real time participative democracy then …….?

      • DrFinlay, I think that’s a bit harsh. The fact is that by electing someone to represent us, we’re placing our trust in them, but that needs to be reciprocated too. Who is going to stand for election – necessitating the giving up of their job amongst other upheavals – if there’s a real risk that they can be booted out again weeks later because someone has sent round a link to a petition to get them kicked out? One only has to think back to the reactions of some outgoing politicians in recent elections to see that the scenario of a peeved-off ex-MSP trying to kick up a fuss to get people to boot out their newly-elected MSP is not exactly unimaginable.

        This is actually an extremely important point Kate and I’m surprised I’ve not seen it mentioned elsewhere before, because I’ve yet to see a single person suggest a threshold that would not be easily cleared by some of the big names booted out in 2011. 10% of the electorate? A second-placed candidate’s voters could easily surpass that.

        And suppose this recall without safeguards led to regular changes to the make up of the chamber. How is a government meant to do its job if key ministers could suddenly find themselves being targeted for recall because some lobby group?

        I think making it so easy to recall MSPs would make it somewhat pointless having elections, quite frankly – might as well save some money by just saying “vote them out when you’re bored with them.”

  6. “If there is no place for him in the party, there is no place for him in Holyrood.” No! This is a thoroughly bad principle. Elected members, whether at Westminster, Holyrood or on local councils, are there by the vote of their electorate, not by the gift of their political parties. All the party machines already have too much power. If elected members are to be recalled, it must be on the initiative of the electorate.

    • That’s exactly my point. They’ve decided they don’t want him anymore, we as voters have no such say. Sorry didn’t express it very well though next paragraph is about democracy belonging to us not parties.

  7. “If we had a power of recall, anti-windfarm campaigners, if they were feeling mischievous and were funded by the likes of Trump, could launch a campaign for the recall for high-profile supporters of renewable energy. Like the First Minister.”

    That’s a frightening thought, although I suspect such an action would merely backfire on Trump and his new-found friends massively. Another similar possible abuse I’ve seen mentioned (by Zac Goldsmith I believe) is that parties could use it to manoeuvre dissenting MPs/MSPs out of parliament. Also, would this merely lead to politicians becoming completely and utterly bland,too frightened to say or do anything that might upset the local electorate for fear of being booted out on a whim?

    I often see Patrick Harvie as the conscious of Holyrood – while I don’t automatically agree with everything he says, I’m always comforted when he’s making the same case I would make (the Economist stushie being a case in point, where his criticism of the cover felt like confirmation that I wasn’t just being a reactionary nationalist in finding it offensive). So as I’m in two minds on this issue, I’m inclined to think Patrick is right. I do believe there needs to be a system to get someone recalled, but the current UK bill is flawed, not least because it only requires 10% to instigate recall procedures (and even then, I think it only gets a parliamentary committee to decide if there’s a case). We all know the problems of governments implementing bad policy just to be seen to be doing something, so I would rather the Scottish parliament made their own policy. That doesn’t mean it should be brushed under the carpet – I think they should look at it as a matter of urgency – but I don’t want us to start implementing things for specific cases, and I think we need to decide for ourselves why and how we want to implement it.

    In the meantime, Walker’s constituents do of course have regional MSPs representing them as well. A handy side-effect of the system, perhaps? There’s another thing actually – bear in mind that we have a different system from Westminster, so what works in their FPTP system might not work quite so well in ours. Would there be different rules for list and constituency members, for instance?

    Having said all that, I do wish the stubborn git would just take a hint. As if being a total homophobe wasn’t bad enough…

  8. I would aurge caution citing the Bill Walker case in support of power to recall (which I agree with). Walker presently is facing allegations, not convictions and it would be very unsafe to propose any change on that basis. It is important to note that his expulsion from the SNP was not because of the substance of some of the accusations he faces but because of his failure to disclose them.

    • a power to recall shouldn’t be dependent upon their being a conviction. Surely it can be because someone has been expelled from their party. If Walker had merely failed to disclose something that was embarrassing or that had a reasonable explanation, then he possibly wouldn’t have been expelled. It was the combination of non disclosure and also what the issues were – not accusations, established fact in court proceedings courtesy of his failure to dispute them (the law may be an ass but it is still the law) – that resulted in the explusion. And a power of recall would give the electorate the opportunity to decide whether or not to keep Bill Walker as their MSP. At the moment, people have no choice.

  9. Are there no rules at Holyrood whereby a member automatically loses their elected status? Say he was convicted of a crime, could he still keep his seat?

    • No, the same rules apply as for Westminster – in that a prison sentence of over 12 months means automatic explusion.

      • How long did the guy with the shelves in Livingston get?

        I’m intrigued as to what sort of crime you have to commit to get your jotters. Given a defence lawyer would argue in mitigation that a 12 month plus sentence would rob his client of employment I suspect they’d need to knock of a Post Office with a mask on.

        Mind you, that job’s already taken by a Treasury Minister.

      • As usual, it’s one rule for them, another for the rest of us.

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