Standing against the Speaker: never mind the politics, what about the voters?

by Stephen Tall on September 5, 2009

There’s been plenty of interesting Lib Dem internet chatter asking whether – now Ukip’s soon-to-be-ex-leader Nigel Farage is breaching normal convention and standing against the incumbent Speaker, Tory MP John Bercow, in Buckingham – the Lib Dems should follow suit.

Opinion is divided. Some say we absolutely shouldn’t – here, for instance, is Stephen Glenn:

… while the ‘convention’ for not standing against a sitting speaker is not as set in stone as some people may have you believe, it is none the less a precedent symbolising the apolitical nature of the role. Indeed it seems to be one, that even if contested, the constituents seem to back up as not one speaker seeking election since 1969 has polled less than 50% of the vote.

And here’s the Wit and Wisdom blog:

Liberal Democrats wanting to be taken seriously should give the Speaker a clear run at the next election as is the convention.

Meanwhile Mark Littlewood at Liberal Vision is more open to the idea that the Lib Dems should stand a candidate to oppose Speaker Bercow and Mr Farage:

Although this is true blue territory, the LibDems and Labour both polled about 20% of the vote last time. In a three cornered fight, a credible, mainstream, liberal candidate might even win.

And Darrell Goodliffe is in no doubt what the party should do:

No credible justification exists for us not taking the plunge and standing against Bercow.

James Graham, rather unusually for him, advises a more cautious, wait-and-see approach:

while I think fielding a candidate is certainly not something I would automatically rule out, I’m not currently persuaded that it would be a good idea. We could never afford to target it to the extent that UKIP will be able to (we’ll have considerably more target seats) and a half-hearted campaign will only serve to make Farage more credible. Things might change – if Bercow really looked like a dead duck we might have to reconsider – and I certainly agree that any party which supports democratic reform shouldn’t be too deferential to existing Parliamentary conventions (the existing convention couldn’t operate under a PR system in any case), but at the moment there seem to be far more cons than pros.

I’m with James on the tactics of the situation. There is no immediate reason for the Lib Dems to seem to be desperately following in the wake of Ukip in a seat which is not a top target for the party. And yet even as I type that sentence, I am acutely aware of its cynically calculated tone, and I ask myself the question: how would I feel if I were one of the voters in Buckingham?

I imagine I would feel disenfranchised: my choice would appear to be between a Tory MP, who has veered from ultra-right Monday Club hardliner to the vaguely progressive Blairite centre, and is now constitutionally bound to remain a political mute; or a Ukip MEP whose swivel-eyed Europhobia blinkers him to all other issues; or (no doubt) a motley collection of comedy fringe candidates. Well, hurrah for democracy!

Okay, so Buckingham is just one constituency out of 650; does it really matter if 70,000 voters are deprived a real political choice so long as the impartial above-party-politics role of the Speakership is preserved? Yes, in my view.

The problem would, of course, be easily solved with proprtional representation: multi-member constituencies elected under STV would mean voters did not have to elect, or be represented by, only one MP. But until we reach the promised land of PR we need to find a better way.

There was a good discussion of the issue in LDV’s members-only discussion forum a couple of months ago. It was noted a proposal was made to create a ‘phantom’ constituency called St Stephens specifically for the Speaker, who would step down from their original constituency upon election to the Speakership. There are downsides to such a system, of course – a costly by-election, the fact that the Speaker would no longer be an MP – but the biggest gain would also be the most important: that voters have the chance to elect an MP who can represent their interests, and vote for or against the government accordingly, unfettered by convention or the need to remain impartial.

So, yes, let us as Lib Dems consider carefully whether we should stand a candidate against the Speaker. But let’s not consider it solely from narrow party advantage; let’s think about how we can ensure Buckingham’s voters are able to exercise a basic democratic choice: voting for the party or person they think will best represent them in Parliament.