Cameron's abandonment of the right to recall shows the death of "the new politics"

The constitutional transformation promised by the coalition in 2010 has entirely failed to materialise.

When David Cameron became prime minister in 2010, he promised to pursue "a new politics" of democracy and transparency, aimed at removing the stain left by the expenses scandal. A major feature of this would be constitutional reform. The Coalition Agreement committed the government to introducing a new power of recall, allowing voters to force a by-election when an MP was found to have engaged in "serious wrongdoing" (provided at least 10% of constituents signed a petition), to funding 200 open primaries, targeted at seats which had not changed hands for decades, to creating a "wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation", and to introducing directly elected mayors in the 12 largest English cities.

Nearly four years on, not one of these promises has been met. The independent-mindedness of Tory MP Sarah Wollaston, selected by an open primary in Totnes in 2009, convinced Cameron to strangle the idea at birth; his recalcitrant backbenchers blocked House of Lords reform, and just one English city (Bristol) voted to create a directly-elected mayor after a notable failure by the PM to sell the benefits of the policy to the public. Now, as today's Independent reports, he has abandoned plans to introduce a power of recall for MPs, despite promising to do so in both the Conservative manifesto and the Coalition Agreement. As Lib Dem party president Tim Farron said on Today this morning, there is no "good excuse" for this volte-face. The most likely explanation appears to be that it would serve as a distraction from the Tories' core agenda (one of Lynton Crosby's "barnacles") and harm Cameron's standing among those MPs in danger of falling victim to democracy.

The 2010 Conservative manifesto said:

Our People Power manifesto will give local people the direct power to recall MPs found guilty of wrongdoing without having to wait for a General Election. Conservatives will empower local people to cast a vote of no confidence in their elected representative and bring an end to the concept of the ‘safe seat’. This proposal will make MPs directly answerable to their constituents over the whole of a Parliament – not just every five years.

How the Right to Recall process will work:

The recall process will begin with the filling of a notice-of-intent-to-recall petition, to be signed by at least 100 constituents and submitted to the local returning officer.

Once registered, a recall petition can be circulated within the constituency, petitions for the recall of MPs must accumulate signatures equal to 10 per cent of the local electorate

Any petition that crosses the signature threshold within 90 days would trigger a by-election.

But as Farron commented, "the Conservatives appear to want to be protected from the electorate. It is about self-preservation. It sends a message to the electorate that ‘we don’t trust you. We think you might do things which we don’t like’. The only reason for blocking this is a lack of genuine commitment to democracy and a lack of trust in the electorate."

Whatever ambition Cameron once had to be a tranformative prime minister, capable of restoring trust in the political system, is now unambiguously dead. And, as in the case of his crude abandonment of environmentalism, you are left to ask: did he ever believe in it to begin with?

David Cameron and Nick Clegg at a press conference to mark the creation of the coalition on 12 May 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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