Mr. Speaker

Recently, a friend of mine highlighted an issue to me that was so obvious that I was surprised I hadn’t recognised it. It concerns the Speaker, a vague House of Commons convention, and the idea of single-member democratic representation.

There is, my friend argued, a convention that sitting Speakers should not be challenged in a general election. Therefore this leaves their constituents with a huge headache; not only do they have the problem of a non-partisan representative (and one who cannot be relied upon to put constituency concerns before the house), but if their non-partisan representative is unchallenged, they are effectively disenfranchised.

There is a lot of merit in this argument, too much to simply dismiss it. It does arguably need a little qualification. If this is a convention, it is a decidedly lop-sided one; the Conservatives have not stood against Speakers seeking re-election, regardless of their previous political affiliation. But Labour and the Liberal Democrats have stood against ex-Conservative Speakers. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speaker_of_the_British_House_of_Commons#Non-partisanship).

Moreover, the merits of the speaker being unchallenged in a general election are too great to simply dismiss out of hand, either, further complicating the matter. Forcing a speaker to fight a close constituency contest would inevitably force him or her into greater political controversy, compromising their position of neutrality within the House itself. Moreover, it could have the novel result in resulting in more unexpected problems for other constituencies; if the sitting speaker is defeated, and a member from another constituency elected to the speakership without the prior understanding of their constituents, how can this be any more democratic than the current arrangements?

However, one thing is clear: in a single-member system, a speaker cannot be a constituency representative in the same way as other members of the House, because of the reasons outlined above. Therefore there is a clear, if not large-scale, need of reform in some way or another. Personally, I am inclined towards the idea of a Speaker, once elected by the House to that position, not requiring re-election from a constituency, and having the option to retire his seat whilst remaining Speaker. This would allow for the political neutrality, whilst retaining democratic accountability (through the House of Commons election of the Speaker) and re-enfranchising the constituents of the Speaker’s old seat. But there are doubtless many other suggestions.

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