It’s time for John Bercow to go

The Speaker is becoming a caricature of himself – he needs to step down

John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, first took the chair in 2009. We had a Labour Government, Gordon Brown was the (doomed) Prime Minister and Michael Martin had resigned the position under the cloud of the expenses scandal.

Upon his election, Mr Bercow promised that he would serve 9 years in the position – a term that comes to an end in June of this year. However, he has recently recanted, declaring his intention to serve another 5. This has served to annoy many MPs, some of whom cannot stand him. He has been a consistently divisive figure among members, but at least there was always a deadline for his departure.

Baroness Boothroyd, a popular ex-Speaker, has given her reasons why she thinks he should step down, most of them to do with practicality and courtesy. I fear she may not understand Mr John Bercow very well.

My support for Mr Bercow is on record. I said last year, “He has no shame in making sure the government is held to account, with a record number of urgent questions granted, and he makes sure the minister responsible damn well turns up to the House to answer them. He takes a dim view of junior ministers showing up to defend a question, and will often keep granting questions until the minister shows.”

“…he is keen to ensure that the House is presentable to the public and, knowing that PMQs is pretty much the only time the public are watching with any regularity, tries to discourage bad behaviour.”

I still stand by this. I make no bones of the fact that I think he has, on the whole, been good for the Chair, the House and for the wider public. He is a champion of the backbenches and a firm defender of the Commons against the Executive. This is important in a Parliamentary democracy, the chamber should never just become a yes man to the whims of the government.

All of this may be so. But here comes the ‘however’.

The criticisms I made in that post also still stand and have become more tiresome and frustrating since. He has added other issues, issues that were completely avoidable, but that show him as a caricature of the worst elements of his personality. That he cannot seem to avoid showing everyone that the MPs who hate him have a point, seems to indicate that he has no control over himself. Why does he insist on playing up to this reputation he has of being partisan, over zealous with his interventions and hostile?

Like a referee in football, he should never be the story. And yet he can’t help himself. Too often, he makes the headlines, he talks the most during PMQs, he has to have the last word with some silly little ‘zinger’ to a minister. Why? This is a common and legitimate criticism of him, yet he will not back off. By all means call the House to order, but then sit back down. He far too often interrupts what could be a horrible pressured moment for a minister and takes all of the momentum out of it.

Take this from Lloyd Evans as an example. He describes the moment where Theresa May had attempted to deflect some of the Windrush heat onto Yvette Cooper, who then was invited to speak:

“This sparked a furious counter-attack from Ms Cooper. She got to her feet and awoke the drowsier members of the Commons with a bombshell. She hadn’t planned to mention immigration but Mrs May’s disingenuous use of her remarks had provoked her to respond. Her delivery was thunderous.

‘Do not try to hide,’ she stormed at the prime minister. ‘Do not try to hide behind me! Do not try to hide behind the Labour party!’

“She said it three times, knowing how well the simple parade-ground thump-thump-thump can work.

‘Do not try to hide behind … ’

“She was halted by the Speaker, a noted expert in rhetorical sabotage, who stood up and called for quiet, and then sat down again. Quite needlessly.

“Ms Cooper resumed her attack but its impetus had been destroyed by Mr Bercow. Once again, he did the hecklers’ work by silencing an orator on their behalf.”

This was a classic example of it. He cannot just let the battle happen, he has to intervene and make sure he’s on the news during this little snippet. His over zealous interventions would be one thing, but the time he takes to drone needlessly on make him look like he is craving the attention. All that needs to happen, if anything, is for order to be called, to wait until the House quietens to an acceptable level, and then to bring the member speaking back in. No more, no less. But he won’t do it.

He has also had some lamentable lapses in judgement regarding his impartiality. Another thing that he continues to do and of which he will not learn the lessons. Now, this applies whether he is saying something you agree with, or whether he isn’t. But it is resolutely not for him to be giving his opinions on anything, and especially not while he occupies the Chair. In giving his opinion, he opens himself up to completely legitimate attack, and deserves whatever he gets.

As I said last year, “If he wishes to give his opinion, he should be absolutely free to do so…the second he resigns his office. There can be no other way.”

“His office affords him immense privileges. He is a member of the Privy Council, he can give private counsel to the Prime Minister and he can also give private counsel to the Queen. The key word here is private.”

Nadhim Zahawi, a vocal opponent of the US President, Mr Trump, had this to say about Bercow’s unwise pronouncements on a potential visit: “For the Speaker to talk in the language of bans only opens him up to accusations of partiality and hypocrisy, particularly when he has extended invitations to President Xi of China and the emir of Kuwait – both of whom have values clearly at odds with those we espouse in the UK.”

Bercow’s position was backed by Owen Jones in the Guardian. What a surprise. If you are unwilling to defend the principle here, then don’t come crying to me if a future Speaker gives an opinion on something that you don’t like. Crying ‘impartiality’ then will be the height of hypocrisy, and I eagerly await the opportunity to shout it.

Because surely this is the point? He is supposed to be impartial. You can’t want to hear his opinion on something, even if you agree with it. For instance, he openly discussed the fact that he had voted for Remain in the referendum. Barely a batted eyelid. Now, imagine he’d declared proudly that he had voted Leave. Would Mr Jones be writing a similar article? I hardly think so.

The crowning jewel of all of this was the sticker spotted in his car. The sticker read ‘bollocks to Brexit’. This, frankly, was an absolute disgrace. A disgrace to him, a disgrace to the office of Speaker and a disgrace to the institution of Parliament. The most partisan issue of our time, the most divisive and poisonous campaigns we’ve seen, the issue that continues to cause pain and anguish, the issue that won’t be resolved for many years, and the Speaker has taken sides. And he didn’t even hide it. It was on his car (registration B13 RC0 – are you starting to get the measure of the man?), the car was in his parking space.

Tom Goodenough got it spot on: “This latest transgression is arguably more serious. It also comes at a time where Bercow is under pressure on a number of fronts. The Speaker is facing allegations that he bullied a female staff member (Bercow denies the allegations). Given this, a wiser speaker would recuse themselves from any debate on the topic of bullying. Not Bercow. When MPs gathered to discuss the subject in the chamber yesterday afternoon, Bercow sat in pride of place in his chair.

“The calls for Bercow to go are growing and this latest matter makes it hard to disagree with those who say the Speaker’s time is up. In 2009, Michael Martin resigned ‘in order that unity can be maintained’. Perhaps it is time to Bercow to listen to his immediate predecessor, if not the wise words of Lenthall. After all, if Bercow does feel so strongly about Brexit then he is entitled to his view. But so long as he remains Speaker it isn’t his place to say so.”

That was in March. It’s now May.

And now we have further allegations of bullying and harassment. He apparently has a bit of a temper. He, of course, denies this. I’ve left this as a footnote as I really resent the idea that allegations should be enough to ruin anyone. I shan’t comment on this unless and until proven. There are enough reasons for him to fall on his sword or have it inserted into his back without mere allegations adding to the fire. Whether they are true or not, he is plainly and demonstrably unfit for his office.

“I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak, in this place, but as the house is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here” said speaker William Lenthall. This noble tradition is being trampled upon by the current occupant of the Chair.

Mr Speaker, it’s long past time for you to go.

I will always vote – until the day I’m forced to

Why compulsory voting would be a step in the wrong direction

Since I was eligible to do so, I’ve voted in every ballot that has been available to me. Local elections, general elections and referendums, I haven’t missed one. No matter whether it’s an exciting, tense, close vote, a foregone conclusion or some bog-standard local election that nobody even knows is happening, I’ve trudged down to the polling station and marked my X (or scribbled something rather less tasteful).

It is a freedom that I am grateful for. Many people have fought for, protested for and been punished for this freedom in the past. But the crucial point is that this happened for the freedom to vote.

I’ve never been a fan of the growing shame culture around not voting. By all means encourage and cajole if that’s what you feel is right, and certainly shake people out of laziness or apathy. But if people want to exercise their equal right to not vote, then they should be allowed to do so. This is, for now (and less and less so), a free country. The state should be extremely limited in telling us what we must do. There is a world of difference between legislating what we can’t do and dictating to us what we must do.

My vote has had varying weights – in local and general elections, it makes barely any difference. I have always lived in some of the safest Labour council and constituency seats in the country, but I don’t bemoan this fact. In referendums, where all count equally, my votes against AV or for Leave have had more weight. But in all instances, I’ve offered my view willingly through the ballot box.

Turnout in this country can vary wildly between the different polls. And this is where problems start to emerge; problems to which politicians start to seek solutions that would begin to erode our freedoms.

Any talk of compulsory voting should chill us, and, in my view, must be resisted whenever is is even whispered. Compulsory voting is not designed to help us, the voters. It is purely designed to help politicians. This is why I am always minded to warn those who are heavily invested in one side and who think compulsory voting would benefit their side that this would not be a panacea.

It always seems to be assumed in this debate that everyone cares, everyone is engaged and every knows enough to cast a vote. This is obviously not true. This should never bar anyone from casting a vote, but compulsory voting would force all of these people into the voting booth. Given the completely anti-democratic and anti-universal suffrage reaction to the EU referendum (take votes away form the old, the stupid, the working class, the white, etc.), I’m not sure these people can square their self-drawn circle here.

One of the issues that seems to continually crop up is the high voting engagement of older people against the comparatively low engagement of younger people. This is sometimes completely disproven in the odd vote, but as a general trend it stands up to scrutiny. It also prompts those on the more left/liberal side of the equation to become exasperated in their attempts to ‘get out the youth vote’ – i.e. their core vote. This inevitably starts to lead down the road towards musing on compulsory voting, because they figure that if they can force everyone (i.e young people) to vote, their share will increase and they will sweep to power.

Makes sense. But if that were to ever happen, they would be making us all less free, not more free. I don’t owe politicians a thing, and they should remember that.

You see, what politicians crave more than anything – more than popularity, even more than power itself – is a mandate. Popularity without a mandate is powerless. Power without a mandate is weak. If it looks like the mandate is small, their power starts to wane. And one way (not the only way, but one way) of depriving them of a popular mandate is by staying away. It’s not the way I would choose, but it is legitimate.

Compulsory voting would force the entire nation to give somebody a mandate, and we would have no grounds to delegitimise them. You would be forced to go and cast a vote. Now, I understand that people have tried various ways to get around this – what about if we still allowed spoiled ballots? What if we offered a ‘none of the above’ option? These are not terrible suggestions, but would always have some problems.

Spoiled ballots would have to be discounted in a way similar to the way they are now. They have to be acknowledged, but not counted, which seems a sensible compromise. But why not just let people stay away? I myself spoiled my ballot in the last general election, but that’s because I wanted to go and show my displeasure – that was my choice. Why should I be forced to go and do that if I don’t wish to?

A ‘none of the above’ option is the one thing that could even remotely sway me towards compulsory voting, but again, there are problems – what if this option won? What then? No MP sent to Parliament? The second on the list wins? We vote again? Again, it doesn’t seem to solve the problem that compulsory voting is intended to solve. What about in referendums – should this be an option there as well? Would they be counted? Would they be assumed to be backing the status quo?

What about in a general election where there are constituencies with only one serious candidate? The entire population of that area would be practically forced to give a mandate to that person, with no choice not to. Spoiled ballots wouldn’t count, and ‘none of the above’ would produce the same issues highlighted above. Traditionally, the Commons Speaker stands unopposed by the major parties- what if I don’t like him? I either have to vote for Greens or UKIP? I don’t think so.

When Jo Cox was murdered, the Labour candidate stood unopposed by any major party. This was, of course, a totally unique situation, rightly engineered out of compassion and respect, but that respect would have been soured by, essentially, a forced vote for the replacement or going for a far-right alternative. As somebody who votes for the candidate above the party or the party leader, that would have caused me a major issue.

Forcing people to go to the ballot box would also be a violation of freedom of speech – the state would be making me send a message that I may not wish to send. This cannot be tolerable in a free society, surely? I should be able to choose what I say and when and where I say it, unless restricted by law (and these instances should be extremely minimal, if at all) – I should not be compelled to do or say anything I don’t wish to do or say, and certainly not by the state. It is authoritarian and a breach of the relationship between state and citizen.

If it ever came to it in this country, which seems unlikely, I would campaign vigorously against it. I’m all for encouraging people to vote, but active non-participation is a choice that many people make, and this shouldn’t be curtailed.

As I say – I have always voted. But as soon as someone tells me that I have to, I won’t.