I recognise that I have written about this situation before, but in light of the 1,967 spoilt ballots (9 Jun, 08:32 on the link) in the recent general election and John Bercow’s pledge to ask the Procedure Committee, when Commons select committees are reformed, to reconsider the situation whereby four constituencies have no MP able to speak in debates or vote and one constituency has no properly contested election either, I have written the following letter to him:
The situation with the Speaker’s Seat, as it stands, cannot go on any longer. In the Buckingham constituency, electors (not me, since I was under 18 in 2010 and 2015 and very fortunately able to vote in Exeter (my university’s constituency) in 2017) have had to vote in three elections where they were unable to express their support for one of three major parties separate to the other two – they have been unable to use their vote to express what policy program they wanted implemented in government. This is a big problem, it means that over 70,000 people are effectively disenfranchised.
The Procedure Committee previously said that the system wasn’t worth changing because it would create another rank of MP, the Speaker would not be held accountable by constituents, and there would be no clear place for the Speaker to go after losing their position. They have also said that the Speaker has unprecedented access to ministers which accounts for the Speaker’s inability to speak or vote in debates and you, Mr Bercow, have said before that your position is similar to that of a government minister – essentially unable to vote the way they personally wish in debates (and the existence of the Deputy Speakers ensures that, when votes are divided on partisan lines, there is no impact on which way that vote goes), but having more influence in government itself and the policies enacted by it.
On the ‘another rank of MP’ and accountability points, it seems it would be worth creating this ‘new rank’ to enfranchise over 70,000 people (over 280,000 people if you include the Deputy Speakers, who are similarly constrained although at least their voters have a choice in elections (which, I note, isn’t said to affect the neutrality of said Deputy Speakers, so maybe the three major parties are wrong to stand aside in the Speaker’s seat for the sake of defending the Speaker’s neutrality)), and accountability could be maintained by the House of Commons who collectively represent the whole country rather than just one constituency. I note that in the Republic of Ireland the Ceann Comhairle is automatically returned at elections and they don’t seem to view that as much of an issue there (their seat is not replaced by an elected member, but it’s less of an issue there because their fairer voting system means that the Speaker’s constituency has other representatives). Also, the whole public can hold the Speaker to account by writing to the Speaker’s Office. If the Commons is still concerned about accountability, they could perhaps introduce some sort of national recall system for the Speaker, but I recognise this would be tricky to find consensus on and hard to organise. I think holding the public holding the Speaker to account via the Commons and the Speaker’s Office is fine.
As for the Speaker having no place to go after losing their position, because, as the Procedure Committee says, it’s not certain that elevation to the House of Lords will always be possible in the future, I don’t think this should be much of a concern. If the Speaker, after losing or resigning their position, wishes to be elected to the House of Commons as a typical MP once more, they should use the typical mechanisms of doing so – probably joining a political party and seeking selection in that. It would be up to their individual candidacy and political parties to get them elected, which is the same for anyone else in the country who wishes to become an MP. I don’t think that MPs become the Speaker just so they have a good chance of elevation to the House of Lords after their term as Speaker, they become the Speaker because they wish to run the prestigious institution that is the House of Commons, that wouldn’t change under a St Stephen’s Seat solution.
On the argument that the Speaker’s access to government ministers compensates for the disenfranchisement of 70,000/280,000 people, um, it doesn’t. Government ministers are still able to resign their position and vote against the government on a certain measure or find a clever way to abstain on an issue (Jeremy Wright (Attorney General) did that latter for HS2). They are also able to speak in debates, and they have significantly more leverage than the Speaker because their potential rebellion or publicly speaking out on a certain issue can force the government to change their minds (for example Conservative ministers thinking that Stella Creasy’s amendment providing free abortion on the NHS for Northern Irish women was worth speaking out on and perhaps even rebelling on) and that then forcing the government to change their mind on the issue – a real policy outcome. Various u-turns during the 2015-2017 government were also caused by potential backbench rebellion. Obviously this force is stronger during governments with slimmer majorities and, thus, weaker mandates, but it also happens over governments with decent majorities, like the rebellion on ID cards during the Blair government.
So the Procedure Committee has got this wrong and they must not trample on the rights of 70,000/280,000 people to have proper elections and a proper MP respectively. They should implement the St Stephen’s Seat solution which they are aware of. It’s not a perfect solution, but in the absence of wider reaching voting reform (like using alternates as they do in France (I think?) and/or proportional representation, preferably STV in my view), it’s the course that must be taken. I hope that you will put all these points to the Procedure Committee.
On top of all this, I invite the Procedure Committee to consider the number of spoilt ballots in Buckingham in 2010, 2015, and 2017 as well as consider that many upset by the system may not have voted and many may have voted for yourself, Mr Bercow, anyway or, indeed, for Scott Raven, the independent candidate protesting the system, or the Greens or UKIP (where they otherwise may have voted Labour, Lib Dem, or Conservative) in the 2017 election (similarly in 2010 and 2015) despite opposing the system. There’s also been a number of petitions on the issue which have garnered a significant number of signatures.
Mr Bercow, I also call on you to speak out against the current system more publicly when you step down from your position as Speaker, as Speaker Boothroyd has done, since this issue will impact the next constituency whose MP decides to become the Speaker, and it will continue to affect the three constituencies whose MPs are Deputy Speakers.