September 10, 2019
Order, order! If you were to ask all the women Speakers of the House there have been in our parliament’s past 600 years of history to line up in order you would have, well, one.
The Country, And The Commons, Need A Woman In The Speakers Chair
The now-Baroness Betty Boothroyd is to date the first and last woman Speaker. She stepped down in 2000 years ago after eight years in the job. In that time, the number of women MPs in the House of Commons has passed the 200 mark (now 211), yet since Boothroyd they have not had a realistic chance at the job.
Until now. 
The news that John Bercow is standing down as Speaker has prompted a number of candidates to declare they are running, amongst them are current deputy Speaker Eleanor Laing and Mother of the House, Harriet Harman – but others may follow. 
The vacancy opens up at a critical time for parliament and democracy. Bercow was undoubtedly a reforming, outward-facing Speaker who did much to modernise parliament’s relationship with the electorate as well as rebalance it with the Executive.  He enabled baby leave for MPs by facilitating a system of proxy voting, which has been trialled successfully. He also oversaw the Good Parliament report and ongoing work to deliver on a number of its recommendations to progress towards a gender-sensitive parliament.
Yet his period in office is undoubtedly overshadowed by Dame Laura Cox’s report on the harassment and bullying of Commons staff where the leadership of the House, including the Speaker’s office, was implicated. Although she did not investigate complaints made against Bercow himself she concluded “the levers of change are regarded as part of the change that is needed”.
We can be in no doubt that our politics finds itself at a new low, largely driven by the fallout from Brexit but also the legacy of the MPs’ expenses scandal and the prevailing image of an institution which appears to have more in common with an old men’s club than it does a modern legislature. The Speaker has become much more than simply the chair of parliamentary proceedings – it is now an outward facing role, arguably the face of parliament. As such, MPs are not simply choosing their favourite candidate to chair parliamentary business, but choosing someone who can connect with the voting public and either represent the future or the past, someone who can either propel this institution forwards or take it backwards. 
Perhaps the most abiding image of the parliamentary chaos of recent days was Jacob Rees-Mogg reclining on the green benches, indicating that he could barely be bothered to engage with proceedings. You could smell his arrogance through the TV screens and taste his contempt. Remember, he is the Leader of the House of Commons. If that is how someone who holds a leadership position behaves then we really have reached a new low.
This is why we need a transformational Speaker, someone who will not only commit to modernising parliament but who will speed up the pace of change. And essentially, one who will face up to and sort out the culture of bullying and harassment, not gloss over it.
Our parliamentary democracy is in crisis and that will only be compounded by the General Election when government presents voters with a “parliament vs the people” choice. The Speaker has to enable parliament to connect with the people it serves and fundamental to that is a representative democracy that can relate to the voting public. One that represents Britain in all its diversity and is welcoming to women, not hostile to them.
Parliamentary culture now has to change and change fast. Nothing less will do. A woman Speaker would represent a modern, outward facing institution. But the electorate for this position are MPs themselves so the question is, will a chamber that is two thirds men get it?
Sam Smethers is chief executive of the Fawcett SocietyRelated... Parliament Prorogued: Scuffles And Bursts Of Song As MPs Protest Shutdown Who Could Replace John Bercow As Speaker? Here Are The Runners And Riders Scuffles, Singing And Cries Of “Shame” As Parliament Is Suspended
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