Watching the extraordinary goings-on in the House of Commons yesterday I was struck by the fact that whether Speaker Martin departs or not, the quasi-masonic system that elects Speakers is in need of reform.
Martin has been in the chair since 2000, a long run and not uncontroversial. He has been criticised throughout that time, sometimes fairly – as with his doomed attempts to protect the privileges (ie vested interests) of the House over the disclosure of expenses. Sometimes the criticism has been unfair, as with the portrayal of ‘Gorbals Mick’ by Tory snobs on the green benches and in the press gallery.
Surely the departure of this humiliated Speaker, either imminently or in a month or twelve months, presents an opportunity for modernisation. Why is a Speaker left in post for so long? Why is there no particular term limit?
In Lambeth’s council chamber, our ‘Speaker’ (the Mayor) is elected each year by an agreement that rotates between the parties. This year the Mayor is a Labour councillor, the year before a Lib Dem, and the year before that a Conservative. The councillor in post steps out of party politics and at the end of their term they return to it.
Why not do the same in the House of Commons and the House of Lords? The amount of criticism which is now being levelled at Speaker Martin is largely due to the fact that he has, as Cromwell or Leo Amery might say, sat there too long and become so institutionalised by the Establishment culture of the House authorities as to be incapable of overseeing reform. To replace him with another Speaker, however well-intentioned that person is, is just to perpetuate the office and the culture that have gone so badly wrong.
If anyone in the Commons is serious about preventing the abuse of expenses and earning back public confidence, surely there is a case for limiting the Speakership to one year. If an incumbent is not performing well, their term will be finite. If they come to the Speakership from the back benches, they come fresh and in touch with the views of MPs and do not have time to lose touch, or to be seduced by the comforts of the Commons.
Speaker Martin must go and the system that created him must go too.