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Parliament’s ambassador

The hapless Michael Martin is soon to depart as Speaker. The progressive Tory MP John Bercow explain

The context for the next Speaker of the House could scarcely be more serious or challenging. Public indifference to politics has given way to ridicule, scorn and contempt. The seemingly endless torrent of expenses disclosures has horrified voters. Huge damage has been done, so the next Speaker faces an unprecedented challenge. An effective democracy needs parliament at its heart, building a relationship of mutual respect with the electorate. The Speaker must be part of a solution to the current crisis.

I am standing for election as Speaker for three reasons: to bring forward the necessary reforms to the House; to strengthen the role of backbenchers – both in standing up for their constituents and in holding the government of the day to account – and to be a public advocate and ambassador for parliamentary democracy.

I am asking colleagues to vote not for a Conservative, but for a Speaker who can act as an ambassador for parliament and restore its prestige. As a politician, I have a track record of independence, having spoken and voted against my party’s line on many issues. I have long pursued unfashionable but important causes on a non-partisan basis: fighting global poverty, providing for special educational needs, achieving constitutional reform, and ensuring equality for all. As a member of the Speaker’s panel of chairmen since 2005, I hope I have shown myself to be able, fair and well-versed in parliamentary procedure. As Speaker I would make a robust advocate for democratic politics.

Sorting out the allowances mess is urgent. We must accept whatever Sir Christopher Kelly recommends in his blueprint for reform, unless there is a consensus that it is fundamentally flawed. Most MPs have to live in two places and their income must enable them to do so. If not, only the independently wealthy or externally sponsored will be able to afford a career.

At present, government controls parliament. Ministers joust mainly with the media, rather than with MPs. Their activity has mushroomed, but parliament’s means to scrutinise this activity has diminished. Worst of all, the government chooses who will sit on the committees that consider its work and decides how long they will be given to do so.

In future, parliament must control the government. We need a business committee to shape the parliamentary timetable; more Urgent Questions and Standing Order 24 debates; and increased scrutiny of legislative activity, the Budget process and EU law. The Speaker should be able to require a minister to make an oral statement to the House. Select committees should be elected, and have greater powers. More topical debates need to be chosen democratically by backbenchers; minority parties and independent members deserve greater rights; the royal prerogative should be restricted. There must be enhanced coverage of the Commons – and greater access to it.

Some changes can be implemented soon, while others must be considered by a constitutional convention. All parties should commit to taking part in such a convention and acting on its recommendations without delay.
With 24-hour media and the internet, the Speaker should not be a purely internal figure, shrouded in mystique and forbidden from making public utterances. Just as the Prime Minister speaks for the government, and the leader of the opposition speaks for the party on the opposite bench, why shouldn’t the Speaker of the House of Commons speak for the House of Commons? I do not mean the chair should be anything other than impartial. What I mean is a threefold responsibility.

First, the Speaker should appear before an equivalent of the liaison committee – or conduct a kind of Speaker’s Question Time – in each session. Second, the Speaker should be permitted to put out authoritative statements to the media on behalf of the House. Third, the Speaker should be an ambassador for the Commons to the society that it serves, reaching out to voluntary bodies and public institutions. The next holder of the office must be not only a Speaker, but also a Listener: explaining the role of the House and the work of MPs, as well as taking into account the views of the public. In the challenging circumstances of our politics, the next Speaker must be the advocate for parliamentarians, especially backbenchers, and also the ambassador for parliament to the outside world.

It is a tough mission, but I believe that I am up to it. My appeal to colleagues is to give me the chance to provide them with a clean break and to prove that I have what it takes.

John Bercow served as Speaker of the House of Commons from 2009-2019.