The Speaker’s electoral immunity must end
Yet this belief is perpetuated for one, and only one, of our members of the House of Commons.
In general elections, it is convention that opposition parties do not field candidates against The Speaker – the First Commoner of the Land - ostensibly because he (or she) is non-partisan. It is as if to do so were perceived as an attempt to depose God’s anointed or to restrict his (or her) powers over Parliament. To challenge this is to run contrary to the will of God and manifestly constitutes heresy. The Speaker presides over the House's debates, determines which members may speak and which may not, and has the power to punish members who break the rules of the House. The Speaker thereby becomes a monarch in his realm. While members may depose him, the people cannot.
It may have been the case that the aspirant Welsh of Cardiff West had nothing to complain of to Speaker Thomas; the white-collared workers of Croydon North-East were happy to revel in yuppiedom during the reign of Speaker Weatherill; and the middle-classes of West Bromwich West were content to be charmed by Speaker Boothroyd. But in Glasgow North East, the constituency of the manifestly partisan Speaker Martin, a scandalous 30 per cent are unemployed and claiming benefits; life expectancy in the poorest areas is just 60.2 years – worse than Bangledesh, Iraq and Uzbekistan. Several primary schools are facing closure, healthcare is manifestly deficient, and poverty abounds.
And yet for the past decade the people have been denied their right to vote for change.
Quite how this fundamentally undemocratic tradition has endured to the modern era and survived the invasive and unforgiving scrutiny of a baying postmodern media is bemusing. How can it be justified in a free and democratic nation that the people who have the misfortune to live in the constituency of The Speaker are deprived of their democratic rights? How otherwise are they able to protest against the party of The Speaker? How can these people have any confidence in a political system or the institutions of government which conspires to deprive them of a voice? How is it that this tradition has never been challenged in the House of Lords, pleaded to the Monarch, or even appealed to our ultimate court of appeal – the European Court of Human Rights?
Interestingly, Article 39 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights enshrines in law the right of all EU citizens ‘to vote and to stand as a candidate at elections to the European Parliament’, and Article 40 guarantees their right ‘to vote and to stand as a candidate at municipal elections. There is no reference at all to the people’s right to vote in national general elections. The European notion of democratic rights progresses from the municipal level directly to the European: there is no nation state; national elections are subsumed to the regional agenda.
The immunity of The Speaker is an anomaly which Parliament itself must address. Michael Gove observes: ‘In the past Speakers have been chosen to "reflect the mood of the House", the next Speaker has to reflect the needs of the country and that is why the candidates should be making their case to the nation, so we can vote in accordance with popular demands, not parliamentary currents of opinion.’
There is no better way for The Speaker to reflect the needs of the country than for him (or her) to be made directly accountable to the people of the country. Those who live in The Speaker’s constituency are invisible at a general election, and so their cries need not be heeded and their concerns need not be addressed either before or after. They are disenfranchised, divorced from democracy, deprived of their human rights.
Parliamentary reform cannot be a spring clean; it needs now to thoroughly disinfect and disinfest. And procedures need to be put in place to ensure that infection and infestation cannot recur. As one small part of this, surely it is time to end this modern-day Rotten Borough and make The Speaker accountable not only to Parliament but to the people.