Nick Hillman was the runner-up in Cambridge at the 2010 general election and is a former special adviser who now heads up the Higher Education Policy Institute.
I love the process of elections. Back in 2010, I stood as a general election candidate. But, this time around, I do not even have a proper vote, despite being British-born, over 18 and having lived in the UK all my life.
Members of the House of Lords and convicted criminals are officially disenfranchised, but those of us living in the Buckingham constituency are unofficially disenfranchised. That is because we have been represented in recent times by John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons.
He is standing for election independent of any party, just as in 2010 and 2015, and the ballot paper lists him as ‘John Bercow – The Speaker Seeking Re-Election’. All the main parties have taken a self-denying ordinance, so are refusing to field candidates against him. In fact, we are the only people in the country who can satisfy Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron concurrently, as all three are urging us to back Bercow.
The Liberal Democrats had promised to field someone. However, keeping pledges is not their strong point. So they went to the trouble of selecting a candidate, only for her to withdraw a few hours later. The Greens have acted even more oddly. Their Co-Leader and only ever MP, Caroline Lucas, is backing Bercow. Yet the local Greens do have a candidate in the race.
UKIP are fielding someone, too. Back in 2010, Nigel Farage thought the lack of local competition made Buckingham his best hope for becoming an MP. After a high-profile campaign, he came third – behind Bercow and a europhile former Conservative MEP. This time, after the Brexit referendum and lacking a well-known candidate, UKIP will fare worse.
It is likely they will beat the only other candidate, though – a local politics teacher who, with impressive initiative, appears to me to be standing primarily to experience an election in person. His pupils are presumably getting a good lesson in how confusing electoral politics can be, as his campaign leaflet favours both more houses and less housebuilding.
So our choice is two independents, two fringe parties and no one else. This is intensely frustrating for many. In 2015, there were almost 1,300 spoilt ballot papers in Buckingham – almost ten times the average number and roughly one for every 40 votes. This time, the lack of choice is a topic of conversation for parents on my school run, in our local pubs and on the commuter train.
Despite all the discussion, there is also considerable confusion, as many people erroneously believe Bercow still represents his old party. At the local elections, campaigners with blue rosettes were blamed by voters for the lack of choice. But the last time Bercow stood as a Conservative was 12 years ago, in 2005. Indeed, as Buckingham is usually true blue, it is the Tories that lose most from having an independent MP rather than a party political one.
Don’t get me wrong: I am a fan of Bercow. I knew him personally when I was a junior researcher in the House of Commons during Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership of the Conservative Party. We were part of the same team trying to hold Labour to account on social issues. It was short-lived because John, rather impressively, put his principles first. He disobeyed a three-line whip in order to support unmarried people adopting children, and so had to resign from the front bench.
Afterwards, I collaborated with him on a speech and pamphlet arguing for the Conservative Party to enter the 21st Century. We called it Change is (Still) Our Ally, a title lifted from a 1950s pamphlet by the One Nation group of Tory MPs.
While working for him, I saw close up that he was a good companion, an effective parliamentarian and a caring constituency MP. I have no qualms at all in casting my vote for him as a person. But that is no argument for treating the Speaker in the way we do.
You do not have to be an active football player to be a successful referee, and it is not necessary for the Speaker to be a regular MP to be effective. Betty Boothroyd, understood this well, arguing in her autobiography that the Speaker should be ‘an ex officio Member of the House without constituency responsibilities’.
On at least four occasions in the last 100 years, in 1938, 1963, 1982 and 2011, the House of Commons has looked at the rules. One alternative that has been considered is creating a special constituency – without any voters – for the incumbent Speaker, as a sort of modern rotten borough. Bercow has himself encouraged this debate, but MPs have repeatedly concluded it is a bad idea.
Yet some of the arguments against it are woefully thin. The 2011 investigation, for example, said Lords reform could mean ex-Speakers losing access to ‘the traditional honour of a seat in the Lords’. They thought it unreasonable that ex-Speakers might have to leave Parliament altogether if they were neither regular MPs nor could walk into a peerage. Even if Lords reform had occurred, this is an incredibly weak argument for barring the tens of thousands of voters in Buckingham from having any real say in this general election.
So, when I wake up on election day, I will look forward to casting my vote for our independent and effective Speaker of the House of Commons. But I will also hope it is the last time anyone has to do so.