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...