Making it easier to unseat the British Speaker

The House of Commons Procedure Committee has unveiled its latest report examining the elections of various positions in the House of Commons (2010 elections for positions in the House). Most of the report is fairly uninteresting – bits about number of sponsors for each position, backdating pay, using pink cards to reserve seats for the election of the speaker, etc – but there is one particular proposal in there that caught my attention, though there is some interesting talk on changing the electoral system for committee chairs/seats too.

The proposal I’m interested in invites the House to decide whether, at the beginning of a parliament, to vote to keep the Speaker by secret ballot as well as the actual vote for a speaker. If that sounds unclear, it shouldn’t be by the end!

How does it work now?

If there is no incumbent speaker seeking re-election, the House, presided over by its longest continuously serving member (or Father of the House), simply elects a new speaker by secret ballot using the exhaustive ballot. A voter in this election would vote for their candidate and if no-one got a majority of votes, the candidate with the least votes would be eliminated and everyone would vote again.

If, on the other hand, there is an incumbent seeking re-election the Father of the House will ask, in this case, “That Mr Bercow do take the chair”. If members oppose the motion, the House proceeds to a division, or vote. This is exactly the same as any normal division in the Commons and members’ votes are recorded. If the incumbent speaker is rejected, the House continues on as above with a secret ballot election with various candidates.

What’s the history?

The House of Commons had its first recorded ‘prolocutor’ or ‘parlour’ back as long ago as 1258 with Peter de Montfort, but the current title ‘speaker’ was first used in 1377 by Sir Thomas Hungerford. With very few exceptions, in those days the Speaker was essentially the King’s placeman in the Commons and was held responsible for the results of the Commons’ deliberations – famously, seven Speakers were beheaded between 1394 and 1535.

Little is known about how Speakers were elected before the 16th Century, but it appears that the King essentially chose him and the clerk of the House put the question with the official candidate as the proposal. The first contested election we know about is in 1566 where the official candidate won by 12 votes (82-70).

The Speaker, conniving with the privy councillors sitting around him, sought to steer the King’s wishes through the Commons by way of scheduling debates on bills, or petitions as they were then, and choosing to whom they would commit these bills for amendment*. In those days of course, it was at least as much a battle of King against the Barons, who commonly used their hold over Commons seats to get their factions elected, as it was King against the people. To an extent it is possible to see the pre-1688 Commons as where the Lords fought their trench warfare against the King (and 1688-1832 as the trench warfare between factions of Lords), being too polite to vote down things in the King’s Council, later the House of Lords.

This state of affairs continued until the now-legendary speech of Speaker William Lenthall to King Charles I as he overstepped his authority in trying to arrest six members of the Commons for treason:

“May it please Your Majesty, 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, and I humbly beg Your Majesty’s pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this to what Your Majesty is pleased to demand of me.”**

In the years after the restoration of the monarchy and the dawn of (dis)organised political parties (the Whigs and the Tories, back then roughly described as either pro-parliament or pro-monarch respectively) after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Speaker often was associated with the group in government and sometimes even took on roles in government. Elections to the speaker were now commonly contested as each party wanted its man in the chair.

It was around 1700, as this spate of contested elections to the speakership was in mid-flow, that the rules were formalised. The clerk would read out the motion for the government’s proposed candidate and if no alternate names were presented to the House then the Speaker would take the chair without the question being put. If another name was put forward, another motion would be read out by the clerk for that candidate. The House would debate the candidates and the clerk would eventually move that the first candidate take the chair. If not, the next motion would be moved. As Standing Orders were codified, it was established that the election of a speaker fell outside their remit.

Until very recently, it has always been the responsibility of government to propose a new speaker (meaning that if there is no incumbent, the speaker-elect was almost always from the partisan majority).

It was only in 1728 with the 33-year Speakership of Arthur Onslow that the Speaker began to assert itself as a defender of parliament over the government and as a fair and judicious arbiter of procedure. Of course, this wasn’t a big-bang reform that happened all at once. Back then, Speakers did and could speak to bills, vote in committee, participate in partisan politics, etc. This doctrine of impartiality, even weak as it is compared to current practice, was not particularly well upheld by Onslow’s successors.

With Sir John Freeman-Mitford assuming the Speakership in 1801, it became traditional that the Speaker be ennobled (given a peerage so that they can sit in the House of Lords) after their service, which has become a further incentive to independence by ensuring a political future for the Speaker after he leaves office.

It took until Charles Shaw-Lefevre’s time as speaker, 1839-57, for Onslow’s impartiality as Speaker to truly take root. This happened principally because the Whig majority in the Commons rejected the incumbent of 18 years Speaker Manners-Sutton in 1835. It was a controversial vote, with many Whigs voting for the Tory incumbent. Cross-party embarrassment at the proceedings ensured it was the last time that an incumbent Speaker was rejected and future Speakers would cut their ties with their former party – even submitting to re-election as ‘speaker’ not as a party member and sitting on the cross-benches in the Lords after retirement. Candidates with backgrounds as cabinet ministers or who were regarded as too close to the leadership were not generally appreciated – members on all sides preferred someone with a bit of independence.

Evelyn Denison, his successor as Speaker from 1857-1872, was the Speaker who established the rule that the Speaker only ever casts his vote in favour of continuing debate, and if that is not possible, in favour of the status quo. This, called Speaker Denison’s Rule, is used by neutral chairpersons the world over. He was followed by equally respected Speakers Henry Brand (who first acted to close debate on the Coercion bill when debate was abused by the Irish Nationalists) and Arthur Peel. Around the turn of the century, the office was described as being treated as Royalty within the Palace of Westminster in no small part due to these exceptional men.

A weaker Speaker, William Gully (1895-1905), was elected in a bitter party struggle and his authority was forever weakened by having to call in the police to remove protesting Irish nationalist MPs from the chamber. More authoritative and consensual speakers followed – James Lowther, John Whitley (the last Liberal speaker), Edward Fitzroy, and Douglas Clifton-Brown.

With the retirement of Clifton-Brown in 1951 the system broke down again, with Labour wanting their first Speaker to be Major James Milner, a respected deputy speaker. The vote was on party lines and the newly elected Conservative majority elected William Morrison instead. After he resigned due to ill-health, the then-Solicitor General Sir Harry Hylton-Foster was controversially elected as Labour felt they had been insufficiently consulted. Hylton-Foster turned out to be a popular speaker, but it was with his tragic and unexpected death in 1965 that the Labour government finally got their first speaker with Dr Horace King. King sped up Question Time and allowed women to wear trousers for the first time in the Commons. After he was forced to retire due to his heavy drinking in 1971 the then Conservative government offered Labour two candidates to choose from for Speaker and Labour chose Selwyn Lloyd.

It was in 1972 after much unease about the way the process of electing speakers was working, the procedure committee changed the process and entered it into Standing Orders. The Speaker was elected by a series of divisions – the first proposing one member take the chair and various amendments with different names to that are voted upon until one is accepted. At the beginning of the new parliament the previous speaker, if he so wished, was proposed as the next as a separate motion – they had to vote down the incumbent before they could choose a new one. Instead of the clerk taking the chair it was the longest continuously serving MP, known as the Father of the House. Also in the new system, the incumbent speaker was invited to take the chair first. Only if that motion was rejected would a new speaker be elected.

The first speaker elected under these arrangements was Labour’s George Thomas who defied expectations by being a fair and impartial speaker despite having a recent background as a cabinet minister. When he retired, Margaret Thatcher wanted to put a former cabinet minister in the chair, approaching no less than six potential candidates but her backbenches forced her to drop her nominee and wanted Bernard ‘Jack’ Weatherill instead.

In 1992, Conservative prime minister John Major’s favoured candidate, former cabinet minister Peter Brooke, was rejected by cross-party consensus in favour of Labour’s Betty Boothroyd, the first female Speaker. She was the first new Speaker elected from outside the partisan majority of the Commons in the 20th century.

In 2001, after the election of the Catholic Michael Martin as Speaker against 14 candidates the Procedure Committee decided that the system was too unwieldy if the ‘Usual Channels’ (the party whips) couldn’t narrow it down to two or three candidates. The new system was to be decided by the exhaustive ballot (where the lowest-scoring candidate is eliminated each count until one has a majority) and all votes were to be in secret. The winner is then invited to take the chair and the question put straight away.

This system was first tested after Martin, not well-respected by the opposition benches, resigned due to his handling of a scandal over MPs’ expenses. The Tory backbencher, and first Jewish speaker, John Bercow was elected somewhat controversially against the wishes of most of his own party.

What do they do elsewhere?

Down the corridor in the House of Lords the Lord Speaker is elected by secret ballot under the AV system for a five year term, renewable once. Notably, this is divorced from the election of a new parliament and the Lord Speaker has to stand for re-election with all other candidates rather than having to be voted down first, though it’s too early for a tradition of allowing the incumbent to win to have formed. The Lord Speaker is entirely neutral in her actions, though she has few powers to exercise and never votes. She resigns her party before sitting on the woolsack (the seat of the Lord Speaker) and sits on the cross-benches after retirement. Where votes are tied, standing orders decide against amending the bill but in favour of progressing the bill/statutory instrument.

Looking to the west the Irish Dail elects its Ceann Comhairle (pronounced Key-an Core-luh), or chairman, for the length of the parliament under the chairmanship of the clerk. The vote is public and on the motion that the candidate ‘take the chair’ with all candidates debated and voted on in order of nomination until one candidate gets a majority. Essentially though, it is in the gift of the taoiseach, or prime minister. Unlike all other assemblies mentioned so far, the Dail can vote by simple majority to oust the Ceann Comhairle before his term is up, though as an interesting aside an incumbent speaker does not have to face re-election since he is automatically returned at the ballot box.

Looking even further west the United States congress has fully partisan chairmen known as the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives. The President of the Senate is the Vice-President of the United States and so his election is not our concern here and what’s more he almost never actually presides over the Senate. These days, even though the President Pro Tempore is publicly elected by simple majority by the Senate to do his job – traditionally the senior majority senator, the job is actually done by junior senators of the majority party in order that they learn the procedure. The Speaker of the House of Representatives is also publicly elected by simply majority and is usually the majority leader too. In a similar tradition to the Senate, the job is usually delegated to other junior members of the majority party. In both chambers, the clerks preside until a chair is elected. The chairs are both in office until the next election.

Slightly further north the Canadian House of Commons elects a neutral Speaker by secret ballot under runoff voting for the term of the parliament. The Dean of the House (the MP with the longest unbroken length of service who isn’t a leader of a party nor a minister) presides over the election. The Speaker is expected to be neutral in his rulings, does not speak or vote (except casting votes under Speaker Denison’s rule). The Speaker of the Senate is appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the prime minister and is expected to be impartial in his rulings, though he can speak and vote in debates (where votes are tied, the question is deemed to be negatived). A Speaker pro tempore to chair debates when the Speaker is busy is publicly voted on by the House after the nomination of the committee of selection. Neither Speaker resigns his or her party.

Back east the Australian House of Representatives elects a speaker by secret ballot using runoff voting. The clerk presides during the election. The Speaker doesn’t resign from his party and although he does not speak or vote he does hold a casting vote generally used in line with Speaker Denison’s rule. The President of the Australian Senate can vote and can (but usually doesn’t) speak in debates and though he doesn’t resign from his party he’s expected to be impartial from the chair. A secret ballot using runoff voting presided over by the clerk is used to elect the president. Traditionally the incumbent speaker is allowed to be reelected without opposition after an election. In the event of a tie, the question is negatived. Both chair proceedings until the next election.

New Zealand’s House of Representatives elects a Speaker for the term of the parliament by public runoff voting while the clerk presides. The Speaker neither resigns his party nor refrains from voting with his party though is expected to act impartially in his duties. The Speaker is guaranteed no re-election after a new parliament is formed. In the event of a tie, the question is negatived.

In Europe the President of the European Parliament is elected by simple majority secret ballot for a two-and-a-half year term. The election is presided over by the outgoing president or one of the outgoing vice-presidents,  or if neither of those are available, the longest-serving member. [FINISH]

In Germany, the Bundestag has to elect by secret ballot a president under an undefined voting system for the term of the Bundestag and it’s presided over by the oldest member. The President votes in the chamber (not in committee), but in a tied vote he can be deprived of his vote by the House. There hasn’t been a contested election in many, many years and presidents don’t tend to run for office again. While the president does not resign his or her party or stop speaking in debates, he or she is expected to preside impartially.

Sweden is in the rather unique situation where the Speaker acts as head of state while the King is out of the country and even leads coalition negotiations. The Riksdag elects a speaker by secret ballot for the term of the parliament. The Speaker does not vote – not even a casting vote – or speak in parliament and is expected to be impartial. He or she does not resign their party. There does not appear to be a tradition of incumbents being returned automatically.

The President of the French National Assembly is elected by secret ballot requiring an absolute majority in the first two ballots and then a relative majority in the third with the oldest candidate winning if votes are tied. The oldest deputy presides over the election. The president stays in his position for the term of the parliament. These days a president never has a second term. No president resigns their party but traditionally they do not take part in votes. The President of the French Senate is also elected by secret ballot for the three years (the partial term of the senate) in the same manner as the President of the National Assembly. The President of the Senate tends to serve for many terms of office. Neither president has a casting vote; if the votes are equal the motion fails.

In Italy the President of the Chamber of Deputies is elected by secret ballot requiring a two-thirds majority, though this decreases to an absolute majority of deputies after the third ballot with the older candidate winning in a tie. The election is presided over by the outgoing president or one of the outgoing vice-presidents,  or if neither of those are available, the longest-serving member. The President of the Senate is elected by secret ballot with an absolute majority of senators needed (going down to a simple majority on the third ballot with a runoff between the top two on fourth; if there’s *still* a tie after that, the oldest wins) and the election is presided over by the oldest member. In Italy, tied votes fail. The presidents of both Houses refrain from voting by convention. Both Houses elect their presidents for the full parliamentary term.

The President of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies is a consensual chairman akin to the European model and has wide powers of arranging the timetable. He is elected by secret ballot under a runoff system for a two-year term. There also appears to be a rule about proportionality, but I can’t find anything specific on it. There is an agreement to rotate the presidency between the major parties. The President of the Brazilian Senate is elected for a two-year term by secret ballot under an undefined system that looks like it is some form of runoff voting. The President can speak (only when not presiding over the Senate) but only has a tie-breaking vote. Neither quits their party when elected.

What do they propose?

That the House should decide whether the initial confirmation vote on the incumbent speaker should be taken by secret ballot as the vote for a new speaker is.

In international terms, the protection for the speaker we have currently is relatively rare. Never mind logical consistency (where there is a case for the secret ballot), the committee believes that the current confirmation vote may prevent members voting with their conscience though it does warn that the secret confirmation vote could wound a speaker’s authority if he survives.

Speaker Bercow, the incumbent, is not without enemies on his former benches*** and the animosity between himself and senior members of the government is palpable. It is possible that right-wing backbenchers could conspire with the leadership to try and oust Bercow.

What’s the government think?

No response has yet been issued, though it is likely it will be dealt with in backbench time allocated by the backbench business committee. It could be any time between now and six months away before this is voted on.

How would it be done?

Just a fairly simple change to Standing Orders thankfully.

*Interesting aside: this is where we get the word ‘committee’ from. The House would ‘commit’ Bills to a ‘committee’ – usually a single person back in those days – who would report back on the bill with changes. For some reason I never made that connection myself.
**It was singularly uncharacteristic of William Lenthall to do this – he was an awful presiding officer and he was so mired in scandal and disrepute that by his death his will required that his grave was inscribed with ‘vermis sum‘ which translates as ‘I am a worm’.
***He was a hard-line Thatcherite back when he entered parliament, but has since mellowed to a centrist – something which his enemies attribute to his marriage to his Labour-supporting wife. He is consequently viewed by some as a bit of a traitor who hates the Tory party, though whether it influences his actions, or even if he does, is highly questionable. In contrast to the quote earlier, one Mark Pritchard MP memorably told the Speaker that he was “not f*cking royalty” and Tory whips have been giving out badges for those who have been “bollocked by Bercow”.
This entry was posted in Australia, Canada, Foreign legislatures, France, Ireland, New Zealand, UK, United States. Bookmark the permalink.

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