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Is it wrong for there to be a by-election in Rutherglen and Hamilton West?

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It has been rather a long time since we have had a competitive by-election in Scotland - a decade, in fact, since Cara Hilton won the Holyrood seat of Dunfermline for Labour following the resignation of the SNP's Bill Walker after his imprisonment for 23 counts of domestic violence.

It is understandable, therefore, that there is a degree of excitement (Labour) and trepidation (the SNP) about the prospect of a by-election in the Westminster seat of Rutherglen and Hamilton West. Its MP Margaret Ferrier was sentenced to 270 hours of community service after pleading guilty to culpable and reckless conduct for failing to self-isolate having tested positive for Covid.

Her fellow MPs will in all probability soon vote for her to be suspended from Parliament for 30 days which, under the 2015 recall legislation, means that should at least 10 per cent of her constituents sign a recall petition, there must be a by-election.

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The SNP has had a harrowing few months, and the beneficiary has been Anas Sarwar's Labour Party. Labour would be favourites to win the seat, which has been held by the party as recently as 2019, and Mr Sarwar's excitement at the prospect of taking a seat from the SNP and increasing his momentum has led to his campaign already beginning.

However, unpopular as my view may be, I would rather we didn't get there. There should be no by-election and, indeed, the 2015 Act should be amended to remove the option of a recall following a suspension from the House of Commons.

Being a member of a parliament is not a normal job in a number of ways, the most immediately obvious of which is that an election politician has no boss. Their boss is not the party leader, nor the whip, nor the parliamentary authorities. Instead, his or her boss is the group of people eligible to vote for them at an election.

This is an axiom which is now insufficiently understood, and too often ignored. And, I am sorry to say, that I think the culture of recall is part of a wider culture in which we fail to take responsibility for our actions, and where we fail to expect others to take responsibility for their actions.

It seems reasonable to me that a Member of Parliament who receives a custodial sentence should be subject to recall and a by-election. This would have been the case with Mr Walker who, instead, only resigned after significant pressure, and it did happen with Labour's Fiona Onasanya, who received a three-month sentence for perverting the course of justice after lying to police to avoid a speeding conviction. Without recall, Ms Onasanya's conviction would have left her Peterborough constituents without an MP to represent them, denying them the most basic right of a voter.

However, those MPs who receive a non-custodial sentence, or indeed are not subject to any criminal proceedings and are instead simply suspended from Parliament, are not depriving constituents of representation.

We need to take a "prevention, not cure" approach to the election of politicians. When we go to the polling booth, pick up the pencil and cross the box, we are entering into a contract with ourselves, with our fellow constituents and with our country. We are indicating that we have considered the choice available and that we are content for an individual to represent us in Parliament for a period of five years.

In reality, we have rarely considered the choice available. We have rarely heard them speak, we rarely know what their qualifications are, and we rarely know anything about them other than what political party has picked them as their candidate. In 2015, when Ms Ferrier was first elected, most constituencies would have elected a Matalan mannequin as long as it wore a yellow rosette.

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This is on us. As voters, we fail to take our responsibilities sufficiently seriously, and we want to wash our hands of the consequences. We can avoid outcomes like this by choosing more wisely in the first instance. We can research our candidates - the individuals, not the parties they stand for. We can attend election hustings, hear them speak, ask them questions, and make an assessment of whether they are of the quality we want in our elected representative.

This is not a retail transaction; you can't get your money back. And this is not a normal recruitment process; there is no probationary period for you to change your mind. You have your Member of Parliament for five years, and if you decide you don't want them any more, then tough luck. You broke it; you own it.

Indeed, the recall law risks being a profoundly undemocratic mechanism. It is MPs and not voters who will decide that Ms Ferrier should be suspended, thereby triggering the recall process. The requirement for one-in-10 constituents to support the petition in order to trigger a by-election means that the challenger political party can relatively easily ensure that it happens. And, along with the ability of the sitting member's party to choose an alternative candidate, we have created an ability for a politician elected by all the people to be removed by a very small subsection of the people.

I do not intend to seem unsympathetic to those who are upset, even outraged, by the actions of Ms Ferrier. At a time when the rest of us were playing by the rules, even if we found them unnecessarily stringent, and suffering the financial, social and mental consequences of those rules, Ms Ferrier decided they did not apply to her. She showed all the entitlement that the traditionally fair-minded people in this country deplore. She does not deserve to be a Member of Parliament.

But she is a Member of Parliament. And when the people of Rutherglen and Hamilton West chose to cross that box next to her name, they agreed that she would represent them for five years, for better or worse.

It is almost certain that there will be a by-election. In the spirit of trying to extract a silver lining from the cloud, voters should choose carefully. They should attend hustings. Ask questions. Research the candidates. And choose a person who will be a credit to them.

Andy Maciver is Founding Director of Message Matters and Zero Matters

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