In what was a sensational result at the last election, Jared O’Mara toppled former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam. O’Mara, who lives with cerebral palsy, became 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 from his constituents to step down again and again, and he compared his critics to “hooligan[s] on the terraces threatening the referee while 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. And while O’Mara isn’t standing for re-election, if he were and subsequently 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 they voted for. They elected a Labour MP, but they got an absent one instead. They 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 been especially 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 it is only one part of the terrifying hole in our electoral system that the last parliament revealed.
In a much less drastic way, large swathes of the country over the last two and a half years have also been left with MPs that do not represent them.
Under the refuge of the current political pandemonium, MPs have resigned from the parties that they originally stood for, joined other parties that their constituents expressly rejected at the last election, and formed new parties altogether 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 MPs (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 that within two and a half years their representative had chosen to resign the party whip.
In South Cambridgeshire, Heidi Allen was elected as 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, but not once did she ask her constituents if they agreed with her.
Two in five Liberal Democrat MPs were defectors from other parties. And while they served their former constituents, many of them are now standing in different seats where they have a higher chance of winning.
Hence, Chuka Umunna moved from Streatham to the Cities of London and Westminster, Luciana Berger moved from Liverpool Wavertree to Finchley and Golders Green, Sam Gyimah moved from East Surrey to Kensington, and Angela Smith moved from Penistone and Stocksbridge to Altrincham and Sale West.
What message does it send to their former and prospective constituents? Quite simply, that they’re only interested in representing people while they agree with them. It is astonishing for elected politicians to take voters for granted in this way.
Some would retort that we elect individual MPs, not parties, so they should be allowed to change allegiances as they wish. But this isn’t how the rest of the public see it. Party-based voting is strong: most people can’t name their local MP. And 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 per cent of MPs agree).
Thankfully, the last parliament also offered a solution to the problem. Constituents recalled two MPs, Fiona Onasanya in Peterborough and Chris Davies in Brecon and Radnorshire, after they were taken to court.
At the moment, 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. But why shouldn’t voters be allowed to recall their MP at any time if they feel that they no longer represent them?
Whether you agree with the direction of the defections or not, it has been a damning revelation of this parliament that an MP can deprive constituents of their voice in the House of Commons and there is nothing that they can do about it.
In much of the country, the current system left voters with MPs serving parties that they didn’t vote for, but at its worst, residents of Sheffield Hallam saw how the current system can leave vulnerable and desperate individuals without an MP to turn to. It is a theft of democracy – and the right of recall can fix it.