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Buckingham Liberal Democrats

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National party rules we may field candidate against Speaker - but too little time to find someone to stand

April 16, 2015 5:31 PM

More room for MPs. But is it fair on consitituencies

So, it's confirmed. Voters in the Buckingham constituency will not be able to choose from the full range of candidates from the mainstream parties in this year's General Election.

For a few days in the run-up to close of nominations on Thursday, April 9th it seemed possible. That after all, we, the local Liberal Democrats, would be able to field a candidate, after we were given very late dispensation from our party hierarchy to break the convention that the main parties do not oppose the Speaker. Buckingham constituency is, of course, the seat held by Mr John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons.

But the seven days we were given to find a candidate, and that includes the Easter Weekend intervening, proved to be too short. We approached several nationally-known figures, several of them ex-MPs. One in particular expressed strong interest and was willing to stand, and we believe he would have done so. But in the end it wasn't possible because of his job.

A Liberal Democrat candidate in this Gen Election, while not expecting realistically to win the seat, would have been able to advance the idea that there must be a better way of re-electing the Speaker that does not entail depriving an entire constituency - Buckingham has 78,744 electors - of a vote in a Gen Election.

(We have not had a hint of support from Labour or the Conservatives in this constituency. They appear to accept the current position and will not be fielding candidates.)

Our campaign was in no way aimed at Mr Bercow himself, who became an MP of no party affiliation as soon as he took on that office, or the dignity which his office deserves.

We believe this convention to not oppose the Speaker is an anachronism and has no place in the political life of the UK today. It is profoundly wrong that an entire constituency's electors be mere bystanders as the political debate develops, with no opportunity to influence its outcome. (The same could be said about the very many non-marginal constituencies, where the outcome of the forthcoming election is highly predictable. But at least people there have a proper choice, even if their chosen candidate has no hope of winning.)

The very late acceptance by party headquarters that the Buckingham party is entitled to put forward an official Lib Dem candidate against the Speaker was wonderful news to us, and a vindication of our campaign to win the right, going back to before the 2010 Gen Election.

However, seven days over Easter was simply too short a time to find a candidate. So now, while our party now accepts the principle that the Speaker's seat can be contested, at least by Liberal Democrats, it may be a further five years before that argument can be made again, unless there is to be widespread electoral reform after this current general election, which could include changes to the way we elect the Speaker.

Why did we challenge the "tradition" (which has been breached by UKIP, the SNP and the Greens, and by both Labour and the Liberal/SDP Alliance in the past)?

The election of an MP by his or her fellow MPs to the role of Speaker results in that person being unable to represent constituents in parliament, either in debates or by voting. Without the support of a political party behind him or her, the Speaker also has little influence behind the scenes.

This means voters in the Speaker's seat are effectively disenfranchised.

We had pursued this campaign since shortly after the Speaker was appointed by MPs in 2009. We made repeated approaches to party leadership, and "bent their ear" whenever we met them at receptions and so on. However, the matter made no progress in Parliament.

Then, in 2014, we seemed to have a breakthrough. At the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference, the policy Power to the People, a package of political and constitutional reforms "designed to engage people with the political system….where Westminster is openly accountable to the public it serves", was adopted by the party. This included the "St Stephens" proposal, that once a Speaker is elected, he or she becomes, effectively, the MP for the St Stephens constituency, centred on Westminster and made up only of MPs. A by-election would then be held in the Speaker's original constituency.

Standing a mainstream party candidate against the Speaker in 2015, we believed, would hasten the end of this undemocratic arrangement for good and cause the St Stephens proposal to be adopted.

A year ago it looked as if we would been able to go ahead and choose a candidate in good time.

The Buckingham party had a returning officer appointed early in 2014 and the candidate selection process got underway. Unfortunately a number of individual officers at Regional and Federal level in the party took personal decisions to block the selection process.

Only after the intervention of the 2015 Lib Dem President, (Lady) Sal Brinton, did the Federal Appeals Committee finally make a ruling which was that these individuals were acting unconstitutionally and had no authority to block our candidate selection process. Too late, sadly.

People ask us why, if we felt so strongly on this issue, we didn't just go ahead and put up our own candidate regardless, without waiting for our national party's approval.

However, if we had gone ahead and done this, without approval from HQ, it would have defeated the object. Our candidate would have been denied official backing, and would not have been described as a Liberal Democrat on the ballot paper.

And we, the officers of the party, could have been suspended or even expelled for our action.

After May 7th we shall continue to pursue this issue and support the principle of fighting a full election, with a full slate of candidates in the Speaker's seat, wherever that might be in 2020.