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.

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We really shouldnt need to think about this, for us democracy should be an automatic reflex. The convention of not standing is all of a peice with top hats & men in tights, part of the public school/gentlemans club heritage; pre-democratic & pseudo-feudal.
On the narrower politics; the Buckingham contest as it stands will suit the Tory media perfectly, a fight within conservatism & excluding any other views.

by plumbus on September 5, 2009 at 3:21 pm. Reply #

No, we do need to think about this. Think about what effectively politicising the role of Speaker and forcing him to defend himself actually means. In order to fight a serious election campaign, here are the consequences:
1. The speak will have to devote considerable time to campaigning, and thus will have considerably less time to spend in Westminster.
2. Therefore he will have less time to spend reforming Parliament, keeping Parliament supreme over the Govt (already very difficult), and chairing the Commons. This is turn will mean that the deputies, who have less authority will be required to do more, the Govt will get away with more, and Parliament will be less reformed.
3. The speaker will be forced to declare his position on numerous subjects in order to campaign.
4. Therefore, on debates on such subjects he will be in an impossible position, because those on the other side will accuse him of bias when things go against them.
5. With such an eroded authority, the Speaker will be increasingly powerless against attacks from any side, and the main beneficiary of this will always be the Government of the day.

by Mark Wright on September 6, 2009 at 11:23 am. Reply #

Mark Wright makes some very good points about the possible effects of a political party standing against the speaker, but the damage has been done. Whats worse UKIP have made plain that their slogan will be ” vote for the real Tory”. An LD candidate would at least inject some non-tory politics & perhaps inspire more voters to actually vote.

by plumbus on September 6, 2009 at 3:17 pm. Reply #


Thanks for the mention. :).

I would make a couple of points as a rejoinder;

A) As I said in my post I feel that the issue that also needs to be considered is as much whether we want to run against Bercow as allow Farage a free-run all the way into Westminster which is something I am totally against.

B) “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.” Nick Clegg has already violated that impartiality and ‘above party politics’ role so I dont see why he cant do it again.

C) I have no problem with the ‘St Stephens’ idea in principle and may well be the blueprint for a future but in the here and now I think all things considered we should weigh in.

by Darrell on September 6, 2009 at 7:41 pm. Reply #

If UKIP were to change its disgraceful policy of abolishing Inheritance Tax I would go and help Nigel Farage to win in Buckingham. His arguments for standing there as a party of protest are valid. They do not apply to the Liberal Democrats, who nowadays are part of the EU-faithful establishment.

If John Bercow were to be ‘compromised’ by having to declare his position on various issues, a new speaker could be elected after the General Election, as would in any case be necessary if Nigel Farage were to win.

by Dane Clouston on September 6, 2009 at 10:37 pm. Reply #

So, Dane, you believe that an authoritarian, xenophobic, fraud-ridden rump is the vehicle of choice for Liberals?

My goodness, you’ve gone on a long and strange journey since the days you were a Liberal.

by Daniel Bowen on September 7, 2009 at 9:44 am. Reply #

In response to Daniel Bowen, I am a liberal who believes strongly that we should leave full membership of the EU, as do many liberals and others in this country. I would like the UK to be some sort of Associate Member of the European Union – outside the CAP and CFP and Euro – and I would like Turkey, at the end of the ten year negotiation period, to be a similar Associate Member at the other end of the Continent of Europe, wishing as I do to encourage a secular Muslim State in the face of objections from the French and Germans to Turkey’s full membership. I have mentioned this to William Hague – at an Open Europe meeting – who said he was not yet thinking on that time scale, and also to Boris Jonson, my erstwhile MP – while lobbying him on British Universal Inheritance – who naturally said he thought it a good idea!

I recently resigned from the Liberal Party National Executive Committee because of the election of an EU-phile Chair and Party President and a consequent weakening of its EU-sceptic stance. Currently I belong to no political party but would consider joining UKIP in the hope of making it more liberal if they were to change their policy on abolishing Inheritance Tax. I strongly object to that policy because I hope to bring about greater equality of opportunity for all by means of the redistribution of the inheritance of capital with the introduction of National Universal Inheritance in this and in other countries. In 2005 I persuaded the continuing Liberal Party, which I rejoined a few years ago, to adopt British Universal Inheritance as its party policy at the 120th Annual LIberal Party Assembly.

I am not aware of UKIP deserving either of Daniel Bowen’s authoritarian or xenophobic insults. Is he muddling them with the BNP? Yes, I understand there has been some fraud in UKIP, as there has been, regrettably, with individuals in many political parties, no doubt including the Liberal Democrats, and – on a grand scale – in the EU itself.

As for my long journey, strangeness is in the eye of the beholder. When I stood for Parliament in Newbury in the 1970s I called for a far fairer country with greater equality of opportunity in education, health and the inheritance of wealth. I also called for as much privatisation as possible – naturally excluding defence, fire service and police, which CANNOT be rationed by price, and excluding education and health, which OUGHT NOT to be rationed by price.

This constant and continuing theme clearly distinguished my position, in those days of less rigorous party discipline, from both Conservative and Labour. The result? Con 24,000, Lib 23,000, Lab 10,000 when only 14 LIberal MPs were elected. Today I would call for VAT on all expenditure on private education and health, to help improve state schools and the NHS.

What is it now that clearly distinguishes the Liberal Democrats from Conservative and New Labour? EU-faithfulness? Join the Euro? An In or Out Referendum instead of the promised EU Constitution/Lisbon Treaty Referendum?

by Dane Clouston on September 7, 2009 at 11:37 am. Reply #

We should be doing anything that damages the Conservatives. Farage standing as the sole serious challenger will bring much focus on UKIP and that may lead to increased support for them nationwide, which in turn may harm the Conservatives in many constituencies they would hope to win – some of them from us.
Then, if he actually won, he and his party could be a delicious thorn in ‘Dave’s’ side – both inside and outside Westminster – for years to come!

by Peter Laubach on September 7, 2009 at 1:43 pm. Reply #

Not too long ago it was “convention” that got many an MP into trouble over expenses and such like. “Convention” does not always mean “good practice”. The Speaker Seeking Re-election “convention” is one such example.

If Farage wishes to turn the election into an ordinary affair, then I actually support his wishes. If the LibDems do not want to stand a candidate with that label, then why not a LibDem supporting “independent” ? Why should people living in whichever Speaker Constituency suddenly find themselves in a peculiar and outdated bubble?

One problem with the re-drafting of our un-written constitution is the retaining of such “quaint” ideas as having a constituency suddenly encased in a kind of democratic bubble-wrap. If Bercow vs Farage begins the route towards something far more democratic – and I support the idea of a “St Stephens” or “Westminster” constituency being created for the Speaker with a by-election in the original constituency – then let battle commence.!

by Liam on September 7, 2009 at 6:01 pm. Reply #

An emergency motion has been submitted to the Federal Conference by the Buckingham Constituency Liberal Democrats to commit the Party to the establishment of an honorary constituency for the Speaker. This will allow all the main parties to put forward candidates in the Buckingham constituency at the next general election or at least for the Liberal Democrats ro do so. The motion is as follows:


Submitted by Buckingham Local Party


Conference notes that the election of John Bercow as Speaker of the House of Commons means that he must stand as a non-partisan candidate for his constituency in every general election which occurs during his tenure as Speaker.

Conference further notes that:

A. if the main parties follow the Parliamentary convention of not standing against the Speaker, thousands of voters who would have voted for one of these parties will be denied their democratic right to vote for the party of their choice in the next and subsequent general elections;
B. at the forthcoming general election, the convention is unlikely to be respected by all the UK parties, especially those with no current representation in the House of Commons.

Conference notes with dismay that, nearly half a century after Jeremy Thorpe joined in proposing a bill to give the Speaker an honorary constituency, electors are still being effectively disenfranchised by an outdated convention.

Conference therefore urges:
1. the Government to add to the constitutional renewal bill a provision which would automatically appoint the Speaker as MP for an honorary constituency, freeing his former constituents to exercise their democratic right to vote for the party of their choice; and
2. Liberal Democrat decision-makers at all levels to ensure that, if this reform is not in place by the time of the general election, a Liberal Democrat candidate will stand in the Speaker’s constituency to enable voters to make a true and unfettered democratic choice at the ballot box.


by David Evershed on September 14, 2009 at 2:49 pm. Reply #

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