On Thursday 26th March, a bill which the Tories tried to slyly get past the House on the last day of parliament was defeated. The bill would have meant that elections for the Speaker of the House would be anonymous. I've read in many papers that this was all part of a Conservative plot to oust the current Speaker John Bercow. But, I can't really see why an anonymous vote would be so damaging to his chances? Can anyone explain?
when it is necessary to proceed with the choice of a new Speaker, the election shall be by secret ballot.
So that wasn't the issue. The motion related to Standing Order 1A:
(1) If at the commencement of a Parliament the Member who was Speaker at the dissolution of the previous Parliament is returned to the House, the Member presiding [...] shall call upon a Member to move that he do take the Chair of this House as Speaker [...].
In other words, this motion (that the Speaker from the last Parliament continue as Speaker in the new Parliament) is not done by secret ballot.
This could be an issue, as if the motion were to be carried but a lot of MPs were to vote against it, everyone (including the Speaker) would be able to see who voted against the Speaker.
Though the Speaker is supposed to be impartial, it is conceivable that this could bias him against those who voted against him, resulting in those members not being called to speak in debates, or the Speaker being more critical of them if they step out of line, etc.
In this instance, Speaker Bercow has a lot of opponents in the House, including many in the Government. So, to avoid this particular situation, the Government proposed this motion:
Standing Order 1A (Re-election of former Speaker) Line 11, at end insert-
"(1A) If that question is contested, it shall be determined by secret ballot [...].".
...which they duly lost by 202 votes to 228.
I know nothing about that specific situation, but it's most likely that this is simply an application of anonymity in voting:
If your vote is anonymous, no one can hold it against you.
There are a series of implications to this:
- No one can punish you for not voting the party line. Non-anonymously voting citizens can be persecuted for casting the "wrong" vote (from friendly harassment, through being fired, through arrest). Non-anonymously voting politicians can lose the backing of their party, which may cost them important positions or may even get them kicked out altogether.
- You're free to vote as you choose. Without the threat of punishment/consequences of any sort, you're free to vote for whatever you feel the best option is. This may not be who/what you're "supposed" to vote for, but no one can trace the vote back to you.
- If other people have similar 'hidden' preferences, you may have power in aggregate. If 15 people say they will vote for A, but 5 of them secretly prefer B, and another 10 say they will vote for B, but one of them secretly prefers A, then when an anonymous vote is taken, the results will be
A: 11, B: 14, which is a totally unexpected outcome. It works similarly in a multi-choice race.
So, most likely the implication of having a secret vote for Speaker of the House is that there are (presumably) people who are only voting for Bercow because they have to, and they would vote otherwise if their votes couldn't be traced back to them.