In this article I will allude to the posts of Speaker of the House of Commons, but also those of the three Deputy Speakers who are subject to the same constraints. Unless stated otherwise, any argument made in this article for the Speaker also applies to the Deputy Speakers. Also note that ‘they’ can be a gender-neutral singular pronoun.
One of the current absurdities of the unwritten, ‘uncodified’ UK constitution is that the Speaker, who is strictly nonpartisan and presides over debates in the House of Commons, is an ordinary MP. The Speaker, currently John Bercow, is not allowed to participate or vote in debates and thus represent their constituents in Parliament. The Speaker is allowed to cast a vote in order to break a tie, but even then, by convention, the Speaker follows a precedent set by Speaker Denison where they will vote in favour of the status quo. Again, the Speaker is unable to represent their constituents in Parliament.
The tradition of representative democracy in the UK is that there is a strong MP-constituent link, where each MP represents a constituency, currently consisting of around 70,000 people eligible to vote (most people aged 18 or over). The MP then represents their constituents in Parliament by voting on certain issues and the speeches they make, since they take their constituents’ views into account alongside their party’s views and their own personal views. Their constituents ultimately hold them to account, since they can be voted out by their constituents in a General Election. MPs also bring particular issues that their constituents have to the attention of the government, which is an important function, but since people can often contact the relevant government department anyway this isn’t the MPs’ most important role. Their most important role is voting on legislation in Parliament and it is here that constituents’ views can have a real impact.
MPs’ personal views and the views of their party often takes precedence in how MPs vote. MPs often take a ‘Burkean’ view of their role which allows them to vote the way they wish with a clear conscience – since if they believe voting a particular way is in the interest of their constituents even if their constituents don’t agree then they will vote the way they want. MPs also often vote the way their party votes because if they do so then they are more likely to receive a ministerial or shadow ministerial role at some point in the future (if they are a Conservative or Labour MP, in particular), though Jeremy Corbyn has shown that frequent party rebels can also rise to the top of a party and thus reward other rebels. However, it is also true that MPs often vote with their party because they agree with what their party believes!
Despite these two factors that determine how MPs vote, the views of constituents are still extremely important. As an example, let’s have a look at the support (or lack thereof) for HS2. Not many MPs that live in constituencies which are affected by HS2 (High-Speed Rail 2) support HS2 – if they did, they would run the risk of being voted out by their constituents, even if they represent safe seats, such is the strength of anti-HS2 feeling in those constituencies. Even Jeremy Wright, a government minister, abstained on the HS2 Bill’s Second and Third Reading because of the influence of his constituents. As a government minister, normally he would be bound to vote in favour of the bill or lose his place in the government.
John Bercow opposes HS2, but he can do very little to help further the views of his constituents on this matter. He can speak to government ministers and ask that they change their mind on HS2, but the act of mere persuasion rarely works in Westminster, only hard votes will do (and hard votes matter, considering the Conservative majority is so small). As it happens, there’s a massive majority in favour of HS2, with both Labour and the Conservatives supporting it, but with a vote and with the ability to speak in debates, Bercow would have much greater influence in Parliament in trying to turn the tide. But he is the Speaker, he does not have a vote and he doesn’t have the ability to speak in debates.
In fact, it’s even worse than that, due to convention, Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats don’t contest the Speaker’s seat, presumably to help preserve the Speaker’s neutrality. This means that not only do the Speaker’s constituents have no opportunity to sway their MP in favour of their view and for that to have an impact, they also have essentially no opportunity to vote in an MP who is more in line with their views (excepting UKIP/Green voters, in the last election).
It should be noted that the three Deputy Speakers do keep their party affiliation upon becoming Deputy Speaker and their seats are fully contested, however they also have no say in debates and no vote. If the Deputy Speakers are included, however, around 280,000 people are disenfranchised thanks to the current Speaker system.
Since the Speaker doesn’t have the privileges that an MP has, and thus can’t represent their constituents properly, the Speakership should not be held by an MP per se, it should be a Commons staff role.
This proposal is relatively simple, what would happen is that the Speaker, upon becoming a Speaker, should no longer be a Member of Parliament but should be considered a member of the House of Commons staff (even though the Speaker was previously an MP). A by-election should then immediately be held in the now-vacant seat so that the Speaker’s previous constituents can have an MP who represents them.
This idea is called the ‘Speaker’s seat’ or ‘St. Stephens’ seat’. It has been suggested in the past and has been rebutted by MPs on the very few occasions it has been considered.
The first objection that MPs have had against the St Stephens’ seat idea is that it creates a ‘second class’ of MP, because someone who was made an MP can be essentially elevated to the rank of Speaker and are then protected from being voted out by constituents. However this is not really a problem. It is true that the Speaker would be unique in being the only Commons staff member who is elected from and held accountable by their MPs and that becoming the Speaker would be a way for MPs to get elected and then avoid being voted out, but actually due to the convention whereby the Speaker is uncontested in elections this basically already happens. Further, because the Speaker gets no vote and no say in debates, their role is rather administrative anyway, it is something of a mixed blessing.
There’s also a suggestion that there’s not enough compensation for the Speaker. Under the current system, if the Speaker steps down and is not offered a peerage, they still have a seat where they can stand for re-election. However, with the St Stephens’ seat, a former Speaker would still be able to stand for re-election to the Commons via the process everyone else has to take part in. If anything, the St Stephens’ seat system will only contribute towards ending the current culture of ‘career politician’ which the public often gets up in arms about.
The second objection that MPs have had is that the Speaker is better when they are held accountable by MPs. Under the St. Stephens’ seat idea, however, all it does is remove their constituency, MPs still hold them to account. Further, the public can attempt to remove the Speaker via MPs and they can make complaints to the Speaker via contacting the Speaker’s Office, so the public can still hold the Speaker to account (perhaps a unique recall election system could be created uniquely for the Speaker if that isn’t enough). Indeed, it makes more sense that the Speaker, the presiding officer of the House of Commons, is made accountable to the whole country rather than their own constituents as is the case currently.
To further counter MPs’ claims above, the Republic of Ireland’s Dàil Èireann’s presiding officer, the Ceann Comhairle, is previously a normal member of the Dàil who is elected to the position of Ceann Comhairle by their fellow members and is thus no longer a TD (Irish equivalent of MP). They don’t have a by-election, I think they should, but that’s not as much of a problem in Ireland because they have multi-member constituencies.
Of course, it would be far better and result in far more enfranchisement (via the end to wasted votes, and proper representation of different parties) if some form of proportional representation was introduced across the UK (and other electoral reform, such as votes at 16, was enacted). However, removing the Speaker’s status as an MP with a constituency would be a fairly quick reform which would instantly enfranchise 70,000 people and doing the same for the Deputy Speakers would enfranchise 280,000. It should be done.
Please, give us a voice. As a Buckingham constituent, John Bercow’s constituency, I urge you to guarantee me a vote in the next election. John Bercow has said he would stand down by the next election, but he may not do and, in any case, that would only mean the disenfranchisement of another constituency. I want an MP who I can influence, alongside others, and who can speak and vote in debates. I want a vote in the general election, just like everyone else does. I am not the only person who is annoyed, 1289 people spoiled their ballots in the 2015 election for the Buckingham seat, and, of course, many people only reluctantly cast their ballot for Bercow, the Greens or UKIP or didn’t vote at all. It would be far better to make a simple reform to the system and resolve this issue once and for all.
So sign the petition here (https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/121673), and just as importantly, share it! The petition has less than a month to run, the more widely you share it, the more likely it will reach 10,000 or 100,000 signatures. This is our chance to resolve this centuries-old injustice.
Edit: As of 15 August 2016 the petition is sadly closed after reaching 180 signatures and falling very short of the required amount. I can’t find one but if there is an alternative petition that can be signed by people who agree with the article please comment below.
Edit #2: Here’s an up-to-date petition! I also corrected a statement where I said the Ceann Comhairle’s constituency get a by-election after they are elected – actually a by-election is not held, the constituency just has one less TD.