Tuesday, 11 July 2017
The situation with the Speaker's Seat, as it stands, cannot go on any longer. In the Buckingham constituency, electors (not me, since I was under 18 in 2010 and 2015 and very fortunately able to vote in Exeter (my university's constituency) in 2017) have had to vote in three elections where they were unable to express their support for one of three major parties separate to the other two - they have been unable to use their vote to express what policy program they wanted implemented in government. This is a big problem, it means that over 70,000 people are effectively disenfranchised.
The Procedure Committee previously said that the system wasn't worth changing because it would create another rank of MP, the Speaker would not be held accountable by constituents, and there would be no clear place for the Speaker to go after losing their position. They have also said that the Speaker has unprecedented access to ministers which accounts for the Speaker's inability to speak or vote in debates and you, Mr Bercow, have said before that your position is similar to that of a government minister - essentially unable to vote the way they personally wish in debates (and the existence of the Deputy Speakers ensures that, when votes are divided on partisan lines, there is no impact on which way that vote goes), but having more influence in government itself and the policies enacted by it.
On the 'another rank of MP' and accountability points, it seems it would be worth creating this 'new rank' to enfranchise over 70,000 people (over 280,000 people if you include the Deputy Speakers, who are similarly constrained although at least their voters have a choice in elections (which, I note, isn't said to affect the neutrality of said Deputy Speakers, so maybe the three major parties are wrong to stand aside in the Speaker's seat for the sake of defending the Speaker's neutrality)), and accountability could be maintained by the House of Commons who collectively represent the whole country rather than just one constituency. I note that in the Republic of Ireland the Ceann Comhairle is automatically returned at elections and they don't seem to view that as much of an issue there (their seat is not replaced by an elected member, but it's less of an issue there because their fairer voting system means that the Speaker's constituency has other representatives). Also, the whole public can hold the Speaker to account by writing to the Speaker's Office. If the Commons is still concerned about accountability, they could perhaps introduce some sort of national recall system for the Speaker, but I recognise this would be tricky to find consensus on and hard to organise. I think holding the public holding the Speaker to account via the Commons and the Speaker's Office is fine.
As for the Speaker having no place to go after losing their position, because, as the Procedure Committee says, it's not certain that elevation to the House of Lords will always be possible in the future, I don't think this should be much of a concern. If the Speaker, after losing or resigning their position, wishes to be elected to the House of Commons as a typical MP once more, they should use the typical mechanisms of doing so - probably joining a political party and seeking selection in that. It would be up to their individual candidacy and political parties to get them elected, which is the same for anyone else in the country who wishes to become an MP. I don't think that MPs become the Speaker just so they have a good chance of elevation to the House of Lords after their term as Speaker, they become the Speaker because they wish to run the prestigious institution that is the House of Commons, that wouldn't change under a St Stephen's Seat solution.
On the argument that the Speaker's access to government ministers compensates for the disenfranchisement of 70,000/280,000 people, um, it doesn't. Government ministers are still able to resign their position and vote against the government on a certain measure or find a clever way to abstain on an issue (Jeremy Wright (Attorney General) did that latter for HS2). They are also able to speak in debates, and they have significantly more leverage than the Speaker because their potential rebellion or publicly speaking out on a certain issue can force the government to change their minds (for example Conservative ministers thinking that Stella Creasy's amendment providing free abortion on the NHS for Northern Irish women was worth speaking out on and perhaps even rebelling on) and that then forcing the government to change their mind on the issue - a real policy outcome. Various u-turns during the 2015-2017 government were also caused by potential backbench rebellion. Obviously this force is stronger during governments with slimmer majorities and, thus, weaker mandates, but it also happens over governments with decent majorities, like the rebellion on ID cards during the Blair government.
So the Procedure Committee has got this wrong and they must not trample on the rights of 70,000/280,000 people to have proper elections and a proper MP respectively. They should implement the St Stephen's Seat solution which they are aware of. It's not a perfect solution, but in the absence of wider reaching voting reform (like using alternates as they do in France (I think?) and/or proportional representation, preferably STV in my view), it's the course that must be taken. I hope that you will put all these points to the Procedure Committee.
On top of all this, I invite the Procedure Committee to consider the number of spoilt ballots in Buckingham in 2010, 2015, and 2017 as well as consider that many upset by the system may not have voted and many may have voted for yourself, Mr Bercow, anyway or, indeed, for Scott Raven, the independent candidate protesting the system, or the Greens or UKIP (where they otherwise may have voted Labour, Lib Dem, or Conservative) in the 2017 election (similarly in 2010 and 2015) despite opposing the system. There's also been a number of petitions on the issue which have garnered a significant number of signatures.
Mr Bercow, I also call on you to speak out against the current system more publicly when you step down from your position as Speaker, as Speaker Boothroyd has done, since this issue will impact the next constituency whose MP decides to become the Speaker, and it will continue to affect the three constituencies whose MPs are Deputy Speakers.
Saturday, 24 June 2017
In this particular Queen's Speech, there was no mention of plans to end free school lunches and replace them with breakfasts in primary schools, repeal the Fixed-Terms Parliaments Act (which would allow the Prime Minister to call an election whenever they want without the permission of Parliament), introducing a 'dementia tax' to pay for social care, and no mention of a bill allowing new grammar schools or plans for a free vote on lifting the fox hunting ban. All of these things were in the Conservative manifesto (their plans of what they would do after the election) but seem to have been abandoned by the minority Conservative government - presumably because they don't think they could've passed these measures, some of them (all of them?) controversial, through Parliament.
In the Queen's Speech were, however, lots of measures to ensure that the UK can function after Brexit, with powers that were held by the European Union now to be held by the UK. A series of bills were announced to ensure that the UK uses these new powers - on customs, trade, immigration, fisheries, agriculture, nuclear safeguards, and international sanctions. Announced plans for the economy were to ensure that there are electric car charging points in all motorway service stations and major fuel retailers, plans to allow more commercial spaceflights, plans on HS2, smart energy meters, simplify national insurance contributions, improve protection for holidaymakers, protect victims of domestic violence and abuse, crackdown on untrue whiplash claims and thus reduce motor insurance premiums, changes to how the courts work, creating a body responsible for coordinating the provision of debt advice, money guidance and pension guidance, give young people the right to require that social media platforms delete information held about them before they turned 18, and there are plans to set up an NHS body to investigate mistakes without an expensive lawyer-led inquiry.
On defence, the government proposes new opportunities for the army to serve in a way that helps them to better serve their family and that fits better with their life aspirations and their circumstances. Part-time service is included in this. On housing, the government pledges to ban letting fees, update mortgage laws from Victorian times. There are a few other miscellaneous bills planned too.
What do you think of the government's programme? Comment below!
Tuesday, 10 January 2017
It's easy to dismiss problems when they don't affect you, but they will, when you need the NHS and it's not there. How do we fund it? Well how did we fund Trident? Did anyone ask where the money was coming from for that? No! Because it was seen as essential, so the government was left to find the money itself. It should be the same for the NHS. Maybe the government needs to reverse its corporation tax cuts, or increase income tax, or borrow to invest in capital for social care or the NHS to reduce NHS running costs. But the important thing is that NHS funding is so essential that it has to be provided. It's not dependent on how the government finds the money, but it must find the money. Just as it did for Trident.
May said absolutely nothing about how she's going to solve the NHS crisis, though she used a lot of words to say nothing, apart from that she wants a 'long-term solution'. If that isn't more funding, and since she somehow claims it's already getting more funding, but clearly it needs still more, does that mean May just admitted to running down the NHS so she can privatize it?
It's no surprise the Tories won't fund the NHS properly, they want everything to be driven by the free market and the NHS is not. Gove tried to privatise education, to an extent, and look at how well that went! Yes it smacks of socialism, but healthcare and education should be provided free at the point of use, designed for people's needs, not dependent on how much money they have. No need to fragment the NHS with more internal market forces, just pay the doctors and nurses and all the other NHS workers to do their jobs. It worked for Norway with education (The Economist, 2013: page 4), they haven't changed their state system for decades but trusting teachers has paid off for them - they're one of the top in the PISA educational world rankings. The NHS will cost a lot, May is right on that, we have an aging population and we're not investing in social care, so costs will massively increase, but we've got to pay it! Otherwise A&Es will be shut when we so desperately need them.
Sunday, 2 October 2016
Friday, 22 July 2016
The problemOne of the current absurdities of the unwritten, ‘uncodified’ UK constitution is that the Speaker, who is strictly nonpartisan and presides over debates in the House of Commons, is an ordinary MP. The Speaker, currently John Bercow, is not allowed to participate or vote in debates and thus represent their constituents in Parliament. The Speaker is allowed to cast a vote in order to break a tie, but even then, by convention, the Speaker follows a precedent set by Speaker Denison where they will vote in favour of the status quo. Again, the Speaker is unable to represent their constituents in Parliament.
The tradition of representative democracy in the UK is that there is a strong MP-constituent link, where each MP represents a constituency, currently consisting of around 70,000 people eligible to vote (most people aged 18 or over). The MP then represents their constituents in Parliament by voting on certain issues and the speeches they make, since they take their constituents’ views into account alongside their party’s views and their own personal views. Their constituents ultimately hold them to account, since they can be voted out by their constituents in a General Election. MPs also bring particular issues that their constituents have to the attention of the government, which is an important function, but since people can often contact the relevant government department anyway this isn’t the MPs’ most important role. Their most important role is voting on legislation in Parliament and it is here that constituents’ views can have a real impact.
MPs’ personal views and the views of their party often takes precedence in how MPs vote. MPs often take a ‘Burkean’ view of their role which allows them to vote the way they wish with a clear conscience – since if they believe voting a particular way is in the interest of their constituents even if their constituents don’t agree then they will vote the way they want. MPs also often vote the way their party votes because if they do so then they are more likely to receive a ministerial or shadow ministerial role at some point in the future (if they are a Conservative or Labour MP, in particular), though Jeremy Corbyn has shown that frequent party rebels can also rise to the top of a party and thus reward other rebels. However, it is also true that MPs often vote with their party because they agree with what their party believes!
Despite these two factors that determine how MPs vote, the views of constituents are still extremely important. As an example, let’s have a look at the support (or lack thereof) for HS2. Not many MPs that live in constituencies which are affected by HS2 (High-Speed Rail 2) support HS2 – if they did, they would run the risk of being voted out by their constituents, even if they represent safe seats, such is the strength of anti-HS2 feeling in those constituencies. Even Jeremy Wright, a government minister, abstained on the HS2 Bill’s Second and Third Reading because of the influence of his constituents. As a government minister, normally he would be bound to vote in favour of the bill or lose his place in the government.
John Bercow opposes HS2, but he can do very little to help further the views of his constituents on this matter. He can speak to government ministers and ask that they change their mind on HS2, but the act of mere persuasion rarely works in Westminster, only hard votes will do (and hard votes matter, considering the Conservative majority is so small). As it happens, there’s a massive majority in favour of HS2, with both Labour and the Conservatives supporting it, but with a vote and with the ability to speak in debates, Bercow would have much greater influence in Parliament in trying to turn the tide. But he is the Speaker, he does not have a vote and he doesn’t have the ability to speak in debates.
In fact, it’s even worse than that, due to convention, Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats don’t contest the Speaker’s seat, presumably to help preserve the Speaker’s neutrality. This means that not only do the Speaker’s constituents have no opportunity to sway their MP in favour of their view and for that to have an impact, they also have essentially no opportunity to vote in an MP who is more in line with their views (excepting UKIP/Green voters, in the last election).
It should be noted that the three Deputy Speakers do keep their party affiliation upon becoming Deputy Speaker and their seats are fully contested, however they also have no say in debates and no vote. If the Deputy Speakers are included, however, around 280,000 people are disenfranchised thanks to the current Speaker system.
The solutionSince the Speaker doesn’t have the privileges that an MP has, and thus can’t represent their constituents properly, the Speakership should not be held by an MP per se, it should be a Commons staff role.
This proposal is relatively simple, what would happen is that the Speaker, upon becoming a Speaker, should no longer be a Member of Parliament but should be considered a member of the House of Commons staff (even though the Speaker was previously an MP). A by-election should then immediately be held in the now-vacant seat so that the Speaker’s previous constituents can have an MP who represents them.
This idea is called the ‘Speaker’s seat’ or ‘St. Stephens’ seat’. It has been suggested in the past and has been rebutted by MPs on the very few occasions it has been considered.
The first objection that MPs have had against the St Stephens’ seat idea is that it creates a ‘second class’ of MP, because someone who was made an MP can be essentially elevated to the rank of Speaker and are then protected from being voted out by constituents. However this is not really a problem. It is true that the Speaker would be unique in being the only Commons staff member who is elected from and held accountable by their MPs and that becoming the Speaker would be a way for MPs to get elected and then avoid being voted out, but actually due to the convention whereby the Speaker is uncontested in elections this basically already happens. Further, because the Speaker gets no vote and no say in debates, their role is rather administrative anyway, it is something of a mixed blessing.
There’s also a suggestion that there’s not enough compensation for the Speaker. Under the current system, if the Speaker steps down and is not offered a peerage, they still have a seat where they can stand for re-election. However, with the St Stephens’ seat, a former Speaker would still be able to stand for re-election to the Commons via the process everyone else has to take part in. If anything, the St Stephens’ seat system will only contribute towards ending the current culture of ‘career politician’ which the public often gets up in arms about.
The second objection that MPs have had is that the Speaker is better when they are held accountable by MPs. Under the St. Stephens’ seat idea, however, all it does is remove their constituency, MPs still hold them to account. Further, the public can attempt to remove the Speaker via MPs and they can make complaints to the Speaker via contacting the Speaker’s Office, so the public can still hold the Speaker to account (perhaps a unique recall election system could be created uniquely for the Speaker if that isn’t enough). Indeed, it makes more sense that the Speaker, the presiding officer of the House of Commons, is made accountable to the whole country rather than their own constituents as is the case currently.
To further counter MPs’ claims above, the Republic of Ireland’s Dàil Èireann’s presiding officer, the Ceann Comhairle, is previously a normal member of the Dàil who is elected to the position of Ceann Comhairle by their fellow members and is thus no longer a TD (Irish equivalent of MP). They don't have a by-election, I think they should, but that's not as much of a problem in Ireland because they have multi-member constituencies.
Of course, it would be far better and result in far more enfranchisement (via the end to wasted votes, and proper representation of different parties) if some form of proportional representation was introduced across the UK (and other electoral reform, such as votes at 16, was enacted). However, removing the Speaker’s status as an MP with a constituency would be a fairly quick reform which would instantly enfranchise 70,000 people and doing the same for the Deputy Speakers would enfranchise 280,000. It should be done.
Please, give us a voice. As a Buckingham constituent, John Bercow's constituency, I urge you to guarantee me a vote in the next election. John Bercow has said he would stand down by the next election, but he may not do and, in any case, that would only mean the disenfranchisement of another constituency. I want an MP who I can influence, alongside others, and who can speak and vote in debates. I want a vote in the general election, just like everyone else does. I am not the only person who is annoyed, 1289 people spoiled their ballots in the 2015 election for the Buckingham seat, and, of course, many people only reluctantly cast their ballot for Bercow, the Greens or UKIP or didn’t vote at all. It would be far better to make a simple reform to the system and resolve this issue once and for all.
So sign the petition here (https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/121673), and just as importantly, share it! The petition has less than a month to run, the more widely you share it, the more likely it will reach 10,000 or 100,000 signatures. This is our chance to resolve this centuries-old injustice.
Edit: As of 15 August 2016 the petition is sadly closed after reaching 180 signatures and falling very short of the required amount. I can't find one but if there is an alternative petition that can be signed by people who agree with the article please comment below.
Edit #2: Here's an up-to-date petition! I also corrected a statement where I said the Ceann Comhairle's constituency get a by-election after they are elected - actually a by-election is not held, the constituency just has one less TD.
Tuesday, 28 June 2016
Other Shadow MinistersNot many of the shadow ministers who don’t attend Shadow Cabinet are particularly well-known, however Stephen Kinnock, son of Labour leader Neil Kinnock who battled against Militant entryists in the 80s and 90s and perhaps viewed as on the soft left of the party, was one of the more notable resigners. He represents Aberavon and has battled for his constituents in the steel crisis, fighting for government intervention to save the Port Talbot steelworks. Given that this is calling for a heavier government hand in the steel industry and even an element of protectionism to prevent Chinese steel dumping, this has placed Kinnock somewhat close to Corbyn’s views on this issue – thus, it is notable that he has resigned despite Corbyn’s Labour’s support of #SaveOurSteel. Kinnock was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Angela Eagle, the former Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and Shadow First Secretary of State. He resigned before she did.
Another well-known junior shadow minister who resigned is Jess Phillips, the member for Birmingham Yardley. She was a parliamentary private secretary to Shadow Education Minister Lucy Powell. She opposed debates in Parliament in honour of International Men’s Day, suggesting that it was women who weren’t represented well enough anyway, not men, and she has spoken out sharply against sexist abuse that has been made at her. In an interview with Owen Jones, she said that she wouldn’t stab Corbyn in the back, but in the front (and only if he wasn’t helping the Labour movement), and she has clearly done this, with an honest, straightforward but respectful (as far as one can be respectful when metaphorically stabbing someone) resignation letter.
The new shadow education secretary has also revealed that she will not be seeking re-election, causing more selection headaches for the leadership.
What happens now?
- An appropriate response to Brexit which can attract metropolitan Labour Remainers and working-class Labour Leavers
- A stance on immigration (taking into account the (perhaps unlikely) possibility of ending free movement via Brexit) which, again, can hold Labour’s more socially conservative working-class and more socially liberal metropolitan supporters together. But equally, whilst this policy should not ignore anti-immigration sentiment as Corbyn’s approach has seemed to do, it should not be an unconvincing fudge which pleases no-one like Miliband’s policy
- A radical reforming stance on the economy (with big, new, perhaps centrist, ideas) but one which is more fiscally credible than Miliband-Corbyn’s ‘capital account deficit and current account balance/surplus’ policy – or, at least, someone who can clearly communicate better than Ed and Jeremy and can convince people that this really is fiscally credible
Tuesday, 21 July 2015
Too often in the current Labour leadership debate, people call for Labour to drop virtually all their current policies and standings - which are popular with many people who would contemplate voting Labour. Many feel very strongly that immigration has contributed a lot to our country - but, simultaneously, we have to try and take the pressure off our budget (even though migrants make a significant net contribution to the economy and tax revenue!) as many rightly feel that none should be taking anything at all - until they have contributed to the economy (a two or four-year qualifier would be a half-decent test of this, although maybe it should be based on time in work). This and the much more important reason of immigrants being employed and reducing 'natives'' employment (which can be partially fixed by stopping exploitation of migrant workers) are good reasons why immigration should be restricted.
However, Labour should comprehensively reject the xenophobic argument of restricting immigration because they may be terrorists (very few are) and the fact that people think Britain is no longer 'Britain' as a result (even though we are all immigrants somewhere down the line) because this is not inclusivist or tolerant - values Labour resolutely stands for even in its Blairite Clause IV.
This is essentially what Miliband tried to do - and did well (in theory, at least) - in his term as Leader. He balanced views with expert finesse and held the party together in its defeat. Many call for a rejection of the 'unity' approach. This is not the right way to repair the party. The reason why this approach of Miliband's failed was because the reasons for the policies weren't communicated anywhere near well enough.
Let's take the economy for example - he held that the market was fundamentally broken: the banks needed to be broken up, as did the energy companies, and rail and bus services needed greater public control. The reason was to reduce prices - ultimately - but he simply didn't get this across to the public. He said he would break up the banks - but he didn't say (or clearly) that this would increase competition and thereby force them to offer the public better deals to get service. He said he would give the public sector a greater role in rail - but he didn't say that it was because rail is a natural monopoly, people don't have any choice in company and have to accept the price they're offered, so it may as well be run by the state and have all profits reinvested. He then failed to make obvious to the public why investment needed to be upkept for economic growth and to reduce the deficit. Indeed, Evan Davis ruined him when he gave Miliband the best chance of explaining why he wanted to run a capital account deficit and balance the current account!
He also failed to point out enough that the Tories were not making these pledges and he failed to ask 'why' often enough and then counter their arguments. Miliband was an economic reformer - as even The Economist (not a leftist magazine by any regard!) recognised - and he was an excellent one at that, but he wasn't a performer and this is what ultimately lost him the election. The public didn't understand him well enough and stuck, rather reluctantly, to 'the devil they knew'.
It is very important that Labour doesn't learn the wrong lesson from this. The answer is not to ditch all of Labour's policies and go with the Tories on many key issues because they have a mandate - they have a slim, reluctant, mandate and we must fight for our own large and enthusiastic mandate in 2020. It's also important that Labour doesn't go massively the other way and draw the conclusion that Miliband didn't go far enough: this really would alienate the 'centre ground'! They must unify all the country's inclusivist, tolerant viewpoints into a coherent policy programme and communicate it far better than Miliband did.
[In practical terms, based on the argument made in this blog post alone, the preferences in the leadership election should be Burnham, Cooper, Corbyn, Kendall (Corbyn and Kendall are both off the rails but Corbyn is marginally closer to Labour's pre-election policies). It isn't voting for Continuity Miliband, it's voting for 'Learning From Miliband'
This blog may elaborate on its rejection of Kendall and Corbyn in the future.]