Monday, 22 June 2009

What is good for the goose...

The election for the new Speaker of the House of Commons takes place today. There are 10 candidates for the job:

Margaret Beckett (Lab)
Sir Alan Beith (Lib Dem)
John Bercow (Con)
Sir Patrick Cormack (Con)
Parmjit Dhanda (Lab)
Sir Alan Haselhurst (Con)
Sir Michael Lord (Con)
Richard Shepherd (Con)
Ann Widdecombe (Con)
Sir George Young (Con)

There are 646 MPs. Subtracting the 5 Sinn Fein MPs who don't take their seats, the one vacant seat (that of Labour MP Ian Gibson, who resigned as an MP) that leaves 640 MPs (at the very most) to vote. Assuming they are only allowed one vote each, how long do we thing that will take? An hour for 600+ MPs to file through voting lobbies? Maybe two?

Nah, don't be daft. It's expected to take all day.

The reason? It seems that our MPs think they've got the be democratic in electing their own Speaker, that the person who sits in that chair must have more than 50% of the MPs voting for them in order for them to have any legitimacy as Speaker. If no one does win 50% of the vote on the first ballot, the person who comes last will be eliminated from consideration and they will vote again. And again. And again - probably - until there are only 2 candidates remaining and one of them wins more than the other (and, thus more than 50% of the vote). This may take until 8pm this evening.

Which raises an interesting question. Why do MPs feel it is necessary that the person who keeps order in the House must have a mandate of more than 50% of the vote when some (most? I can't find figures) of them do not have that very same mandate?

Take this, most celebrated, example of the flaws in the First Past the Post electoral system - the 1992 result from Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber:

Sir Russell Johnston (Lib Dem) - 13,258 votes (26.0%)
D. Stewart (Lab)
- 12,800 (25.1%)

F.S. Ewing (SNP)
- 12,562 (24.7%)

J. Scott (Con)
- 11,517 (22.6%)

J. Martin (Green)
- 766 (1.5%)

The Liberal Democrats won the seat on barely a quarter of the vote. In fairness to the Lib Dems, this is one (the only?) instance where they have benefited from a system which is hugely unproportional. In 2005, they won 22% of the vote but only 9.6% of the seats and routinely get screwed by the system. It is one of the reasons they are vehemently pro-PR. The other, of course, is that PR is inherently more proportional and more democratic.

Labour's other MP for the blogosphere (no, not that one, he LOVES First Past the Post), the former minister Tom Watson, recently wrote about why he thinks the Alternative Vote electoral system needs to replace FPTP. He reckons (with some justification) that retaining FPTP is simply a sop to vested interests (read: MPs who are scared of losing their seats under a proportional system). Which is understandable. But if there is one thing the expenses scandal has taught us is that MPs sometimes put their own interests before those of their constituents. And that is not the way it should be.

So, I return to my original question. Why do MPs think the Speaker needs to be elected with over 50% of the vote? To have legitimacy. To have a mandate. To have authority. Call it what you want. But it is exactly the same thing that MPs (and, indeed, Governments) lack under a First Past the Post electoral system.

You can say what you want about the Speaker, the job he/ she will do and the candidates for the job. But the way in which they are elected to the post provides them with the authority to do the job. Unless, of course, the Labour Government Whips have anything to do with it...


James Mackenzie 22 June 2009 at 12:05  

I was going to write this post. Maybe not as well, but the same point.

Stuart Winton 23 June 2009 at 08:02  

On the other hand it could be argued that the legitimacy afforded to the Speaker in such circumstances could be seen as very forced and superficial.

If Sir Russell Johnston had been elected as an MP by a similar method, for example, then that wouldn't have changed the facts of the first round of voting, which clearly indicated no decisive mandate - thus forcing candidates out of the contest to achieve a candidate with a majority can't fully legitimise the winner's authority.

Malc 23 June 2009 at 08:58  


That's a good point. Though I would suggest STV/ AV/ preference electoral systems in general would mean more people were satisfied with the outcome than under FPTP.

While that may not occur under the first (or even, in the Johnston case, until the third or even fourth preference - making assumptions that the other preferences distribute evenly) more voters' preference of a candidate being elected is served by this form of voting.

James 23 June 2009 at 10:05  

I disagree. We have no idea whether Russell Johnston would have won. Under AV the Tory and Green votes would have been redistributed (the Tories too, because even if all the Greens put the Tories second, they'd still be bottom).

Then we'd have known what those voters thought about the other three candidates. My guess is that most of the Tory voters would have gone to Fergus Ewing, enough to put him into top place but not enough to win.

Labour would probably have been stuck in third at that point, making it a final runoff between the Liberals and the Nats. The question then would be whether enough Labour voters preferred the Liberal candidate to overtake the Tory support for Fergus.

I don't know how it would have gone, obviously, because we're stuck with this stupid FPTP system. If we have to choose a single elected representative, AV would at least allow us to take account of the views of all the voters down the line.

Malc 23 June 2009 at 10:30  


I know. I was speaking hypothetically. And I was trying to demonstrate that preference voting provides a fairer way of ensuring that the most popular candidate (or, if you like, the "least worst") is elected.

I know that the votes wouldn't have redistributed equally. I was just trying to show that we could be talking third/ fourth preference before candidate is elected - which is still eminently fairer than FPTP.

Stuart Clay 23 June 2009 at 22:42  

The other advantage of expressing preferences is that you don't have to. If you're only interested in one party, then the other parties don't have to have the benefit of your vote. This might mean jeopardising your say in an election, but at least you had the choice.

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