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By tradition no-one stands against the speaker of the house in the UK when they are re-elected as an MP.

However if I feel passionately that I want to vote for a particular party and I am in the speaker's constituency then I am denied that opportunity. Am I not effectively politically disenfranchised?

How does that work - how can people in that electorate feel it's acceptable not to have a vote for their preferred party? Is there ever protests on this issue? I've never heard of protests - it just seems accepted.

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    How about the Prime Minister's constituency? Do you think many people get to sit in front of the PM in his weekly MP surgery? It's a tricky one, but I guess the principle is about whether you have unelected people in the most responsible positions or elected ones. If you have the latter, they can't do everything, there has to be a compromise somewhere. In practice, there is a constituency office that operates as normal, and other elections in a seat that enable people to express their views. The speaker is normally in a very safe seat anyway, so a minority are arguably disenfranchised anyway. – Rinky Stingpiece Oct 22 at 2:15
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    @RinkyStingpiece it's not so much having someone to represent you on local issues - more national. Arguably the speaker might be a more effective voice for you (more power) on some local issue that is bothering you than a backbencher. It's more a denial of your political voice on the national stage i.e. on issues like welfare or climate change or Breexit. If I was a keen Brexiteer in the current speaker's constituency I wouldn't feel like my views were being represented and there was no option for them to be either. – Crab Bucket Oct 22 at 2:24
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    FWIW, the deputy speakers are normally chosen so that the balance of parties isn't affected. So because John Bercow was originally a Conservative MP, the deputy speakers consist of 1 Conservative and 2 Labour (and note that, unlike the Speaker, the deputies retain their party memberships, even though they don't vote). – Steve Melnikoff Oct 22 at 8:44
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    Also note that there has been a General Election since the referendum, so the existing MPs have a mandate to represent as they see fit independently from the referendum result. (ie, they've been voted in since the referendum, so the constituencies involved have had a chance to remove any MP that didn't have the pro/anti Brexit views that they wanted) – Smock Oct 23 at 10:54
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    @RinkyStingpiece it seems to me that the composition of the House of Commons does in fact reflect that the electorate is confused, conflicted and internally at odds, while mostly willing to abide by the referendum result. – Lag Oct 23 at 13:00
3

No.

The situation is the same as in any of the other 649 constituencies that send a representative to the House of Commons, in that

  • if only one candidate is nominated, he is elected without a vote;

  • the elected MP is supposed to represent his constituents;

  • there is nothing in the law that stops any party from fielding a candidate in it;

  • any person who meets the conditions (age, number of nominees, citizenship, etc.) to stand for Parliament is allowed to stand in the constituency, and if he wishes he may promise to support everything that's in a specified party's manifesto even if he is not an official candidate for that party.

In any constituency it may happen that you don't like there being only a single candidate, or if there are two or more candidates you may not wish to vote for any of them. It may also happen in any constituency that you would like to vote for a candidate who stands on the manifesto of a certain political party but you can't because that party isn't fielding a candidate in that constituency.

If disenfranchisement meant "deprived of the opportunity to vote for a candidate who is standing on your preferred party's manifesto", then the answer to the question would be "yes". And it would be "yes" not only in the Speaker's constituency but in other constituencies too. For example, in the 2017 general election the Liberal Democrats chose not to field a candidate in two other English constituencies as well as the Speaker's; and there was an absence of Green and UKIP candidates in several constituencies in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, even though candidates from both the Green Party of England and Wales and UKIP stood in the Speaker's constituency. So if disenfranchisement meant what I just said, then a Labour supporter could be said to have been disenfranchised in the Speaker's constituency but not in Ilford North, whereas a Green supporter could be said to have been disenfranchised in Ilford North but not in the Speaker's constituency.

But disenfranchisement doesn't mean that. It exists when

  • there are two or more candidates and you don't have a vote;

  • there are two or more candidates and you are obliged to vote only for a given candidate, or to choose between voting for him or abstaining; or

  • there is only a single candidate because the law or the state has determined that that is how it will be, and you are only allowed to vote for that candidate, or to choose between voting for him and abstaining.

None of this means that your suggestion that the person elected Speaker should stand down and make way for a by-election is other than a good one. It could be argued that whoever is elected in your constituency should be tasked with representing his constituents by participating in debates in the Commons and by voting in Commons divisions where it is in his constituents' interests for him to do so. Of course the Speaker is only one person, so if he were able to vote whenever he chose then his vote would only affect a result in the event that equal numbers of members other than himself voted Aye and No, which is precisely the situation in which he does vote. But against that objection it could be pointed out that although he has a vote in those circumstances the precedent is for him to cast it according to Speaker Denison's Rule, not in the way that he feels best represents the interests of his constituents. In that sense I agree with the thrust of your question, and I would support there having to be a by-election.

But be aware that there is nothing in the law as it stands that prevents any party from fielding a candidate against the Speaker.

  • FWIW, history suggests that it would be very, very unlikely for only one candidate to stand in a constituency at a parliamentary election (though sometimes local council elections do only have one candidate in a ward). – Steve Melnikoff Oct 24 at 8:16
  • Yes indeed, but it has been known. Since WW2 it has happened at general elections in six constituencies, and none of them have been the Speaker's. I am not sure how often it has occurred in parliamentary by-elections, but it's at least once, in Armagh in 1954, which was the last time it happened in any British parliamentary election. – h34 Oct 24 at 13:01
17

Yes.

It is a flaw in the British system (I am British). On the other hand, most British voters are effectively disenfranchised, because their vote will never make a difference to the result: they live in seats where it is possible to predict which party will win without knowing anything about the candidates.

A better system would involve appointing the Speaker then making them an honorary member of the House, and holding a by-election in their constituency. (I would tend to do this for the deputies too. Deputy speakers do not vote in divisions either.)

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    @RinkyStingpiece I think the speaker should be elected by the HoC (not the general public), because it is the HoC that is going to be ruled by the speaker. On the separate matter of Sinn Féin not taking their seats: I see no reason to require it; they clearly campaigned on a platform of not sitting. Requiring them to sit would disenfranchise all those who voted for them. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Oct 22 at 9:52
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    I agree the speaker should probably be elected by the HoC, but perhaps candidates could come from the HoL. I won't respond to the SF point, because that would be straying too far off topic - it should be a separate question. – Rinky Stingpiece Oct 22 at 11:08
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    @MartinBonner What about the Prime Minister? There have been numerous Prime Ministers from the House of Lords, rather than the House of Commons (for example Lord Grey, after whom "Earl Grey" tea is named, was Leader of the House of Lords and Prime Minister simultaneously). In recent history, that has resulted in Alec Douglas-Home resigning from the House of Lords, to run in a by-election to join the House of Commons in 1963 - making him a member of neither House for 20 days! Which disenfranchises the voters more? (After retirement, he was re-elected to the House of Lords in 1974) – Chronocidal Oct 22 at 12:15
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    @Chronocidal I don't see how having a PM from the HoL disenfranchises voters: they didn't vote for Home, but they voted for the HoC which had confidence in the government which the PM leads. There is no particular need for the PM (head of the executive) to be a member of the legislature at all. They could come to the bar of the house to answer questions. Nit: Home wasn't re-elected to the HoL, he was appointed (technically by the monarch). – Martin Bonner supports Monica Oct 22 at 12:20
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    @Chronocidal it's a good point. If the PM doesn't have to be an MP, then I'm not sure what the problem would be with having a Speaker who isn't one. We currently have members of the judiciary appearing to determine government policy these days, and public votes that appear to count for nothing; it might be cheaper to just revert back to an absolute monarchy, and do away with the ridiculous spectacle that Parliament has become, flames fanned by the media. – Rinky Stingpiece Oct 23 at 13:27
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One could feel disenfrachised for all sorts of reasons: you could be in a politically 'safe' seat, or be an environmentalist in one of the constituencies that the Green Party doesn't field a candidate, or even in Northern Ireland where the major parties don't stand.

There was a candidate standing as a protest against this tradition in the last election, and a petition against changing it.

The Conservatives had got tired of Speaker Bercow, and were planning on breaking this convention before he announced that he would be stepping down as Speaker.

If you were a keen Brexiter in the constituency, you could have voted UKIP.

  • Voting in an alternative candidate would still require there to be a speaker, so it would only nudge the problem along to another constituency. – Rinky Stingpiece Oct 22 at 7:39
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    @RinkyStingpiece Not really. Firstly, that only is true if the candidate you vote for wins. Secondly, whoever becomes the new Speaker would already have fought and won an opposed election. – richardb Oct 22 at 7:45
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    @richardb even then, although you'd have had a vote that counted, you still don't have an MP that votes to represent your constituency's interests in parliament, since the speaker doesn't vote. – PhillS Oct 22 at 8:44
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    @PhillS That is true, although somewhat tangential to the original question. – richardb Oct 22 at 8:48
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    @richardb: It's not tangential, it is the same core question. For the "next speaker" system you mention, the electorate would have voted and then received an MP who doesn't vote in the house; which is even worse than your MP running unopposed because you already know they won't vote in the house. – Flater Oct 22 at 14:07
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It's worse than that - the Speaker can't vote on issues, so his or her constituents aren't even represented in Parliament.

And, yes, it disenfranchises voters, not to mention the local party.

For example, when Harriet Harman announced that she was planning to run to succeed Bercow, her Camberwell and Peckham Labour Party urged her to pull out, and hinted that they would run somebody else against her (ref), simply because they didn't want to lose meaningful representation in Parliament (and why would you?).

I agree with Martin Bonner that this is something of a fundamental flaw in the system.

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    I think the issue with the speaker rather than being the flaw, highlights the actual flaw covered in richardb's answer. Disenfranchisement of the speaker's constituents is not a big deal because most UK seats are safe, with the population effectively disenfranchised anyway. What does one more seat, that was probably safe matter? Bercow's seat has been Tory since 1970. Held by Labour for 12 years in the last 100 and had a majority over 10k since the 80s. – Jontia Oct 22 at 18:03
  • @Jontia That's not really the point. Forget party politics - forget which party holds the seat; the whole point is that that couldn't matter less, because there is no representation in Parliament for the people of that constituency. Now that I think about it, it's kind of outrageous. – Lightness Races with Monica Oct 23 at 9:33
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    That's not true though. They have representation, just no choice over who it is. Wikipedia; "Finally, the Speaker continues to represent his or her constituency in Parliament. Like any other Member of Parliament, the Speaker deals with issues raised by constituents and attempts to address their concerns." – Jontia Oct 23 at 10:36
  • @Jontia That wording is basically wrong (or, at the very least, employs a highly debatable interpretation of the word "represent"). The Speaker still performs business in-constituency but since they have no vote in Parliament their constituency is not represented there. Let's not use Wikipedia as a textbook for how political systems work. – Lightness Races with Monica Oct 23 at 11:15
  • @Jontia & Lightness: it depends what you mean by "representation". There are many MPs who can't (by convention) speak on constituency matters in Parliament, including all members of the government, whips, and party leaders & spokespeople. In that respect, the Speaker (and deputies) is no different. As Wikipedia says, they can write to ministers just like any other MP. Clearly it's not as good as all the things a backbench MP can do; but apart from not being able to vote, the Speaker is not so different in this matter from, say, a minister. – Steve Melnikoff Oct 23 at 14:16
2

An important point that is being overlooked is that wanting to vote for a particular party is really at odds with the whole constituency-based political system. The idea of this system is that you vote for the man not the party - the general stupidity of many of the general public in not understanding this is the issue here, excepting those who want a PR based system which does align with parties over people, in which case the system does. Note that even in a perfectly functioning PR system there will always be combinations of beliefs that no party matches; we do not say those voters are disenfranchised (the only system that would avoid this problem being direct democracy, which has myriad other issues).

In short, no, they are not disenfranchised within how the system is designed except due to the public's fixation with parties, but yes, the public's obsession with parties has effectively disenfranchised them.

  • I think 'stupidity of general public' is a bit harsh as every party active in the country presents a general election as a vote for the party not the member. Voting for a member is only highlighted on the doorstep. It is the Parties that fixate on parties. – Jontia Oct 23 at 6:38
  • @Jontia the parties of course are part of the problem by their natural focus on parties. But when independent candidates are ignored, and you just need a dustbin wearing the right coloured rosette to get elected in some consistencies it becomes abundantly clear that the stupidity of the average voter ruins what is fundamentally a very good system – Display name Oct 23 at 7:12
  • I strongly disagree. If those that benefit most from the system (those being elected) are rewarded for undermining it (winning as a party not a candidate) it can hardly be fundamentally good. – Jontia Oct 23 at 7:16
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    This is completely true, though it's not the complete story of why the speaker holding a seat is problematic (i.e. forget parties: a constituency is completely unrepresented) – Lightness Races with Monica Oct 23 at 9:44
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit that is a very valid point - if they do choose to reelect the speaker (which is the norm) they end up with no representation in votes (although I imagine none-vote level representation does exist) I'd agree entirely that the MP in question should have a 'speakers seat' and trigger a by-election when selected, with the caveat that the speaker should always be a MP at the time of selection. – Display name Oct 23 at 12:18

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