Monday, June 22, 2009


Are You Speaking To Me?

It’s difficult to get excited by today’s contest for a new Speaker. There was a brief flicker of excitement that things might change, but no, it looks – and I hope to be proved wrong – that Establishment stitch-ups are smothering the cleaning-up of Parliament all over again. We’re almost a quarter of the way into the hundred days that Nick Clegg timetabled for a reform programme to take back power, and bugger all’s been done. Worse, what’s the smart money on by the end of the day? Speaker Bloody Beckett. Give me strength. How has it come to this?

The short answer is, it appears, that neither Labour nor the Tories give a toss about reform, openness or even making the House of Commons look a bit better, and have instead seized on three priorities: find someone who’ll protect their interests against the nasty world outside that’s been mean to them; stick two fingers up at each other across the chamber; and stick two fingers up at the voters.

Even this Parliament deserves better.

The one hope, and it’s incredible that I find myself writing this, is another dose of secrecy slaps onto the process that means that no-one quite knows if the old Labour-Tory stitch-up is actually going to work this time. I’m very wary indeed of a secret ballot within Parliament; generally, MPs should be held to account for how they vote on our behalf. Let’s see how it works on this one type of vote, though. No doubt if they end up picking someone good, I’ll say it’s a vindication of a system that defeats the whips as I predicted all along, and if they end up picking Mrs Beckett some appalling establishment hack, I’ll say that it’s no surprise, as I’d always said what a disaster it would be to let MPs vote on protecting themselves without fear of scrutiny.

Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg has called for radical change and an end to the establishment domination of Parliament, telling Andrew Marr:
“I want to see a Speaker who transforms the role from the traditional role, which is as a defender of the status quo – almost a shop steward of the rights and privileges of MPs – into a people’s Speaker, into a Speaker who opens up Parliament, turns it from this Nineteenth Century institution into a modern, transparent, open, publicly accessible Twenty-First Century Parliament.”
And I agree with every word except one. “People’s” sounds like a Twentieth Century communist dictatorship or, almost as bad and slightly more sickening, Tony Blair. I wish Nick would give up the habit. Anyway, I back Nick’s call. But then, Nick called for a massive programme of reform that could take place over a hundred days, and after 22 days, Parliament’s done bugger all. So I suspect that bugger all will flow naturally into Buggins’ Turn.

I wrote a few weeks ago that the new Speaker shouldn’t be some old grandee. There is no worse time in British history for Parliamentary tradition and Buggins’ Turn to be followed. I said it should be someone with a proven track record of calling for and voting for reform before it was fashionable, if Parliament’s to crawl back to any sort of credibility at all. I suggested (much as I dislike and disagree with him) Frank Field as someone who does seem to have credibility with a lot of the media, which might help rebuild some trust in democracy. For me, the perception of a person who wasn’t part of the establishment and could command wide respect as a reformer was even more important than the action of reform itself (which will take much longer and will get far less press attention, so it’s vital to make a simple, visible statement by picking someone who embodies reform).

Well, stuff that, as no-one fitting the bill has gone for the job.

So what’s left? Ten people, five of them with knighthoods. Good grief. It’s not that I’m against knighthoods per se – well, I might be, actually, but that’s not the point – but can you think of a better way to say ‘we’re all out of touch and doing it the old way’? And there’s the fact that gongs are usually handed out for long service; where a reformer should ideally be someone who’s been an MP for no more than two or three Parliaments, Sir Anything is likely to have gone hopelessly native. No knights, please. What could be worse? Only a timeserving government minister who’s been deeply partisan for as long as I’ve been alive and wants the job as a pay-off for recently being sacked…

So What’s the Uninspiring Choice On Offer?

I’m deeply suspicious of the Speakership going to Labour for the third time in a row. It smacks too much of the Labour Government trying to control Parliament from beyond the grave. But I’m wary of a Tory, too. The most likely outcome of the next General Election at the moment seems like a Conservative government; the new Speaker should be able to spur on Parliament to hold them to account, not hold their dinner jackets. And I get downright frosty when people always suggest a Liberal Democrat for an ‘apolitical’ position, because frankly being in third place for ninety years means you have to have a lot more backbone in what you fight for than MPs who coast along with whoever happens to be winning at the time. Of course, it would be absurd to have an SNP or Plaid MP who doesn’t believe in the Westminster Parliament anyway, and as for the Northern Irish parties… Independents get my goat, too. Egomaniacs with a free ride.

Er, I guess that means I’ll just have to look at the people up for the job rather than analysing which party would be best for the place.

Margaret Beckett
Oh, please, no. Anyone but that. And I don’t think there’s room in even one of my articles for all the many reasons why. First and foremost, she is the single most partisan and tribal candidate for the job. She is a creature of the Labour Party through and through – long a spokesperson, a minister in many departments, combining bitter arrogance and thoroughly undistinguished service in all of them. Can you remember a single thing she’s done, as opposed to what she’s been? Oh, yes: as Foreign Secretary, she was Tony Blair’s liar-in-chief for the Iraq War. She was even Labour’s Deputy Leader and then interim Leader – hardly qualifying her as a referee. And after all that, she was still given the sack a few weeks ago, so it’s difficult not to see her going for Speaker as just a consolation to keep her in the highly-paid style to which she’s become accustomed, particularly now that her massive and roundly jeered-at expenses for gardening are unlikely to be upheld (some of them, for hanging baskets, tubs and planters, took the piss so much that even the Parliamentary Fees Office rejected them).

If all that wasn’t off-putting enough, she’s the only candidate for Speaker who’s refused to back several key reforms – such as letting MPs choose Select Committee Chairs, rather than the government doing it – and the Labour Whips (with help from the Conservatives) are blatantly twisting arms on her behalf as the anti-reform candidate. They’re relying on her record and manifesto of the executive controlling Parliament, as it long has. If all that doesn’t convince you that she’s by far the worst of a bad bunch, remember her performance on Question Time just after the expenses scandal started breaking? The worst reception I’ve ever seen, as the audience booed, hissed and jeered and she sneered, lectured and told them off in return. In every conceivable way, she just didn’t get it. If she’s elected Speaker, expect those clips to be all over the news, and the public’s view of the House of Commons to sink even lower than the incredible low it’s at now.

John Bercow
Well, what to say. In theory, he’s the best-placed ‘reform’ candidate; he might actually shake things up. He also seems to understand that he needs to open communication with the public again. On the down side, he appears to have most support among Labour MPs who don’t actually like him but know that his fellow Tories loathe him, as they have ever since he lost his Tory front bench position for voting for gay equality legislation. That might endear him in a small way to me, but it’s no way to build credibility across the aisle. Plus, he’s been so obviously gagging for the job for years, which makes my eyes narrow; like Michael Martin, he wouldn’t so much have to be pulled to the chair as peeled away from it. Besides, my one encounter with him was stunningly unimpressive. In 1997, I was the youngest candidate for any party standing in the region (however you count it; for short, ‘the bit above London and before the Midlands’) and was called on to do a lot of media and other debates around Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and so on. I debated against him at a youth rally in Milton Keynes when he was a hopeful Parliamentary candidate (admittedly, with a lot more reason to be hopeful than I did!), and I went along knowing his record as a near-fascist former Tory youth leader, a barking mad right-wing firebrand. Yes, I was pretty much expecting the anti-me. Instead, he was one of the most boring and out of touch speakers I’ve ever been put up against. Ever since, he’s seemed to me to have gone from firebrand to vacuum.

Sir George Young
Oh, look, a grandee. Huzzah. Apparently the other ‘favourite’, he’s the current Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee – yes, the one that’s fucked up so appallingly. Like the Conservative London Mayor and Conservative putative Prime Minister, this Conservative putative Speaker went to Eton. In isolation, that’s no reason to criticise any of them, but put together, you do wonder if the country’s top political jobs can’t find a wider talent (or indeed gene) pool. On the plus side, he’s one of only four candidates to go public about their twelve sponsors (refusing even to be open about who’s backing you doesn’t bode well for a commitment to transparency). The ‘carry on as you are’ continuity candidate. Oh dear.

Sir Alan Beith
Here’s the other candidate that I’ve met – quite often, in this case, and we’ve always got on quite well, despite my discombobulating him more than once in our years together on the Liberal Democrats’ Federal Policy Committee with my rather different worldview. He’s a genuine reformer, a fair and nice man, and one of only four candidates to go public about their twelve sponsors. The trouble with Alan is that only his mild manner prevents him from looking like the embodiment of the establishment (though, having sat on committees with him, he does have some steel to him – I don’t want all this “nice” and “mild” to add up to Sir Humphrey’s famously undermining praise, “Ah, the lay preacher!” Although Alan is, in fact, a lay preacher). He’s been in Parliament since the year after I was born, and I still remember Steve Bell’s 1992 cartoon of him as “Alan Beith – in leather!” for its hilarious absurdity. I can’t quite see Alan capturing the public imagination. He also came under fire for splitting his expenses with his wife, Diana Maddock, a peer. As far as I can make out, they didn’t claim for anything dodgy between them, but it looks dubious. And people will make up their minds on the new Speaker unfairly quickly. Were I in Parliament, I’d consider voting for him.

Ann Widdecombe
No, seriously? A partisan bruiser with a reputation for being slightly unhinged isn’t the most obvious choice for Speaker, but in her favour, she might capture the public (meaning press) imagination – or blow it to pieces. She’s also one of only four candidates to go public about their twelve sponsors. The down side, other than anyone who’s ever heard her speak on any issue – I’ve never met her, but once had a letter printed in a national newspaper ridiculing her stance on cannabis when Tory Shadow Home Secretary – is that although she poses as a fearless battler for ordinary people, her record on reform is the most shameful of any of the potential Speakers, persistently voting in Parliament to prevent any of us finding out about MPs’ expense. She’s also only standing to be Speaker until the end of this Parliament. What’s the point of that? Sounds to me like her USP is ‘vote for a media personality to get you through this mess while everyone’s glaring at you, then you can vote for the usual stitch-up in a year’s time when all the fuss has died down’.

Parmjit Dhanda
Another former minister, and possibly one looking to save his seat, his track record’s distinctly unimpressive. However, he’s the youngest candidate and the only one of Asian extraction, and has made some decent noises (nothing definite, you understand) about standing on a reform platform, so he has the capability to make an instant stamp as someone different, and that’s needed. Were I in Parliament, I might consider voting for him.

Richard Shepherd
Despite having been an MP for thirty years, he’s the most credible member of the Tory awkward squad, with a solid commitment to civil liberties and reform, and was one of the first to break ranks and criticise the former Speaker. Independent-minded, clean, an impeccable record on freedom of information… It’s no surprise that he’s thought to have no chance of getting it, nor that, were I in Parliament, he’s probably the candidate I’d be most likely to vote for.

Sir Michael Lord
It’s not a felicitous name if you want to avoid being seen as part of the establishment, is it? He might just be the most establishment candidate standing. This does not endear him to me.

Sir Patrick Cormack
And if Sir Michael isn’t the most establishment candidate standing, Sir Patrick probably is. He’s been in Parliament since 1352 and positions himself as a traditionalist. Save us.

Sir Alan Haselhurst
This knight of the Shires isn’t some anonymous grandee – no sir. He’s a grandee that everyone remembers for pocketing a scandalous £142,119 second homes allowances… Without a mortgage to pay. Plus, he’s been Deputy Speaker for the last 382 years, and thus utterly complicit in the whole rotten system that this election is meant to sweep away. Even though he’s been one of only four candidates to go public about their twelve sponsors, that’s too little change, too late. By far the most gobsmackingly unbelievable candidate. What does he think he’s doing?

The answer to my question, then, is that none of them are really speaking to me, though three would probably be all right, several others look pretty bad and the one the bookies have most likely to win would be an utter disaster. Business as usual, then.

In Other News…

I noticed just before I started writing this that Stephen is also horrified at the thought of Margaret Beckett’s election. A chap of excellent instincts.

If you’re tired of reading about Speaker nonsense, my old friend “Costigan Quist”, a far more radical Liberal than his ‘real-life’ persona suggests, has a typically brilliant piece about the only people who are more pathetically incapable of doing anything in politics than politicians, who at least get off their arses and try – yes, the public are to blame. But will Sir Alan still be able to blog if he’s elected Speaker (damn, I’ve outed him!)?

And finally, have you heard the interview where the newly elected populist bigot Mayor of Doncaster is revealed to be an utter and total fuckwit without the faintest clue what he’s doing? Just a shame that interview didn’t go out before the election, eh…

Update: It appears that opposition to Margaret Beckett is not an unusual phenomenon amongst Liberal Democrats. Except for Mark Littlewood on Liberal Vision, who’d rather have a socialist than a Tory – is he feeling all right? And thanks, Anders!

Today, I have been consoling myself by listening to George Harrison’s greatest hits, Let It Roll. Ahhhhh. Particularly Cheer Down, which is fab and which I was the sole person in the UK to buy as a single when it was released escaped twenty years ago.

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