22 June 2009

The Speaker should not be an MP

Parliament continues to limp on through a storm of bad publicity: now, apparently, party whips are putting pressure on MPs to vote for particular candidates for speaker: in the case of Labour MPs, that is Margaret Beckett.

The fact that MPs are being approached by whips over what is supposedly a "non-partisan" choice is unfortunate, but there is a deeper problem here. MPs are fundamentally a political animal. And yet the Speaker, who is an MP, is supposed to be impartial. These two criteria are so obviously incompatible that it's amazing that anyone thinks there won't be tensions of this kind. If nothing else, having a speaker who is also an MP deprives his or her constituents of their right to proper democratic (political) representation.

The obvious solution would be to have a speaker who is not an MP, but some kind of appointee. Obviously an appointed position would carry a risk of partiality; to get round this, I'd recommend that the speaker have to be endorsed by a majority of MPs in all parties separately. So a majority of Labour MPs, a majority of Conservative MPs, a majority of Lib Dem MPs etc, would have to ratify the appointment. Possibly that's a recipe for complete deadlock, but in any case a simple majority vote of MPs seems inadequate. It is very important that all parties are happy with the choice of Speaker - otherwise how can they have confidence in the parliamentary process?

Until politicians start thinking in more radical terms about reforming our outdated parliamentary institutions, doubts about the suitability of Parliament for the modern age will inevitably persist.

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