Many people were offended by the Tory MP Anne Marie Morris’s racist comments this week. The abhorrent language she used has no place anywhere.
No doubt among the most offended by Morris’s words were her constituents – the people who voted for her in the last three consecutive elections and who have put their trust in her to represent them. She has betrayed that trust.
MPs are employed by those who elect them. It is voters who decide if they should get the job in the first place, and it is voters who judge them on how well they have done when they go to the ballot box at the next general election. But sometimes – like this week – something happens which is so shocking it can only be right that an MP’s constituents have the chance to look again at the decision they made.
In the case of Anne Marie Morris, the residents of Newton Abbot will potentially have to wait five years to tell her that they don’t like her racism. They should have that chance now.
Currently, MPs can only be recalled by a petition initiated by the Petition Office under a strict set of rules, which constituents can then sign. But voters should have the power to trigger the process themselves so they can hold their MP to account on a much wider range of issues. This is actually a principle Morris has previously supported. So the Green Party is calling on her to resign and trigger a by-election so voters can decide whether they still want her as their MP.
In 2015, my colleague and co-leader Caroline Lucas was one of the MPs to lead a campaign to give constituents the right of recall. A campaign backed by Morris herself. This sought to put into law a mechanism for constituents to trigger the process of recalling an MP, by making an amendment to the Right to Repeal Act. This would have meant a certain number of constituents can launch a right to recall petition by signing a “notice of intent” – but MPs voted it down 340 to 166. Those who voted against the change were scared of giving voters real power, and instead positioned themselves out of the reach of those they represent. It is no secret that trust in politicians is in short supply at the moment. But if MPs don’t trust their voters, how can they expect voters to trust them?
Morris’s actions this week show why we need to revisit a proper right to recall.
And it’s not the only time an MP’s actions have brought their ability to represent their constituents into question. In March this year, the former chancellor George Osborne announced that he was to become editor of the London Evening Standard, as well as being an MP, working for BlackRock, and taking regular speaking slots. Not only did the new appointment compromise the newspaper, it also left Osborne’s 65,200 constituents in Tatton without a dedicated voice in parliament.
I think most of us will agree that it is impossible to edit a newspaper and be an MP without neglecting one of those roles. But without the right to recall, Osborne’s constituents couldn’t hold him to account. Fortunately they only had to wait until June, when he decided not to stand again in the general election.
No doubt many voters who saw their MP become embroiled in the expenses scandal felt similarly let down – not least the constituents of Gosport, where then-MP Peter Viggers famously claimed £1,645 of taxpayers’ money for a duck house. The scandal did push Viggers to resign, but he stayed in post for a further year until the 2010 general election. His constituents should have had the right to remove him straight away.
Of course, when MPs make decisions which harm their constituents they should resign. But history tells us they often don’t. There is no doubt that the racist language Morris used was so appalling she should step down. She backed the campaign to give voters a right of recall – and now it is time for her to show she can walk the walk, as well as talk the talk. But if she doesn’t, her constituents should be able to force her to do so. That is true democracy.