Bercow Withdrawal Syndrome: a functioning Westminster Parliament?

Some short confessions of an Anglophile, I hope. I’ve had the misfortune to be fascinated by the Brexit process, and its lack of progress through the House of Commons. And I’ve lost sleep over it, given the time difference with New Zealand. Of course, New Zealand also has a Westminster system, and the Queen of England is the Head of State. But New Zealand politics is rather dull at the moment, despite Jacinda Ardern being internationally known. Our parliamentary procedure is much more rule bound than Westminster; and the Speaker can be more of a control freak, which suits the incumbent, a former school teacher. What a contrast with the House of Commons speaker, former Tory, John Bercow.

One does enjoy the wit of Bercow, and his chiding of his former Conservative colleagues, especially when interjecting from a sedentary position. But all good things come to an end. Even I have come to realise, however, that for all his wit Bercow is at the centre of a very British farce. Not because he is frustrating Brexit, but all of it is a very elaborate and verbose word game being played by the former public school boys of England. Bercow lets the representatives of the lower orders have their say. But you have to wonder when he uses his role to make impersonations of former MPs, including Whitelaw and Wedgwood Benn (the peer who renounced his inherited title). Not as bad as hearing Mr Rees-Mogg expanding on what kind of limbo the WAB is actually in, based on the derivation of the word and its religious connotations. This repartee went on for some time. But not as much time as Bercow allowed for the Tory men to tell him he was biased.

Of course, Bercow batted these very mannered condemnations away with trademark wit. But in New Zealand the Speaker would have told the member to put it in writing; or put up or shut up, even if in a standing position. Then he’d mention the relevant Standing Order to the member, and suggest that the House get on with its business. So the New Zealand Parliament is still functional, if rather utilitarian, and completely rule bound.

I woke up this morning to see some the UK Sky News, and Sophy Ridge with two guests talking about the Brexit impasse in Parliament, including a so-called former advisor to Boris Johnson. This gentleman stated that in the British system there had to be one party which had a Parliamentary majority, so the whole country has to vote on a wintry day in December to anoint a new Conservative Government, with another Queens Speech in the same year. Now, the Westminster system obviously operates as a binary one: there is a Government or Treasury benches, and the Opposition benches; but this does not necessarily require there to be only one party on either side. Indeed, one can’t say that there is still a two party system any more, despite the results of the 2017 election. In fact, the Conservative Party did have a majority, with the help of the DUP, and has just won a confidence vote in Parliament. So why doesn’t it just carry on with its legislation. Even if the Johnson Government resigned, it is possible for the Opposition parties to govern.

It is here that a comparison with New Zealand is interesting, partly because the second, and third, and fourth largest parties are in government. Indeed, the right wing National Party still has the most seats, but could not win a fourth term, because its coalition partners lost their electorate seats in the 2017 election. Some commentators still thought it should have had the first opportunity to continue in government as the largest party, but this is not a convention at all. I should at this stage indicate that New Zealand changed its electoral system in the 1990s, and opted for a German style method, the Mixed Member Proportional system. This involves a nation-wide party list vote, and it retains electorate seats, based on a separate vote. Together there is a 120 seat Parliament, but this involves more electorate seats than party list seats, usually 66 to 54 seats.

The key thing about the new system was that it has ensured that one party can not get a majority of seats, even though it is technically possible. But in First Past the Post, as in Britain, a party could get a minority of the overall vote, but a comfortable majority in Parliament. Nonetheless, commentators and especially the media, still operate under the assumptions of the old system, and it is still basically a two party system. Despite what I had hoped, the two old parties, National and Labour, still hold almost all of the electorate seats. National tends to get more, so is already ahead when the party list votes top up their number; then we wait to see if smaller parties cross the 5% threshold of party votes to get into Parliament. If they don’t we would be back to the old system. Moreover, when the opinion polls are published, the TV political editors like to see the smaller parties not reach 5%, so they can pretend they will not be in the next Parliament, and this means that the National Party can govern alone with a majority. So normal service will resume.

Although no party has ever got a majority of seats since the system was changed, the electorate seats still indicate the underlying pattern in politics. Initially there was more volatility in the electorate votes, and seats used to change hands. The Labour Party were more competitive in provincial seats with a regional city or major town, especially in the lower North Island. But now they only hold electorate seats in the major urban areas, a university city like Palmerston North, and the old mining area of the West Coast of the South Island. This seems to be a similar situation to Britain, even though the Labour Party’s majorities are much bigger in the large cities, and in some of the regional university cities like Cambridge, if not in the former mining districts in the Midlands.

In the U.K. Mr Johnson obviously wants a winter election, so the turnout will be lower than 2017, mostly affecting the Labour held seats in the provincial districts. But, even if the Brexit debate still dominates, he has to get out his own vote to stave off the Brexit Party. The received wisdom is that the Conservatives will lose most of the Scottish seats won in 2017, that were vital to shoring up Mrs May’s administration. But the Scottish vote is very volatile, with big majorities being overturned in some seats, but not in adjacent ones. It is also assumed that the Liberal Democrats will win seats, based on their polling numbers, but their existing seats are mostly marginal as well. A close look at the previous results shows that the Lib Dems are a distant third in most seats, and even when second, they would have to overturn large majorities, apart from in Richmond Park (in London), Cheltenham, and St Ives (Cornwall). There have been a large number of defections from the main parties, but it is difficult to see the rebels surviving.

As an Anglophile I used to love football. In the 1970s, as a kid, the New Zealand public radion stations used to relay the British football results at 9am on a Sunday morning. So, through a crackly line, the BBC voice would come over, and we would get to hear how Norwich City had done. At the time Martin Peters was playing for them, a member of the 1966 English World Cup team. Norwich are back in the top league, and struggling, but the world of football is completely different. However, if you look at the clubs geographically and compare them to electorate seats, almost all of them are in safe Labour seats. This is obviously because most of the clubs are based in the big cities. But of all the other teams, only Bournemouth is an area with no Labour Party MPs. Another coastal club, Brighton and Hove Albion, is an area with two Labour members, and the solitary Green Party MP.

I’m not sure if there is a professional football team based in Buckingham, Mr Bercow’s electorate which has been uncontested till now. Or in most of the other Conservative areas, certainly not in the Premier League, or in the Championship. Not only is it a working class game, but football is the most inclusive sport, as well as having successful managers from continental Europe. The Conservative Party obviously want to go back to the little England of enthusiastic amateurs, and little clubs of articulate, but verbose blokes who know their place, like in Westminster. Even if they can still gerrymander the results, so that the biggest urban areas are effectively not represented in government, they should still have to follow the rules, hopefully to be enforced by Harriet Harman.




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