Making a good Parliament: Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow visits Birkbeck

Dr Ben Worthy from the Department of Politics discusses a recent lecture at the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life, which welcomed the Rt Hon John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons. His lecture was titled, “Parliament as Pathfinder: Changing the culture of an ancient institution”.

How can Parliament be reformed? The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, took time out from imposing order on MPs to tell a packed audience of Birkbeck students how he intends to do it.

Since his election in 2009, the Speaker has made his name as someone who wants to make Parliament a different place and the Commons is undoubtedly different as a result. When Bercow became Speaker, Parliament famously had a shooting gallery but no creche. In his speech he pointed to some of his successes, including allowing children through the voting lobby. However, as he said, more needs to be done.

Drawing on, (or in his words, ‘shamelessly plagiarising’), the Good Parliament report by Birkbeck’s own Professor Sarah Childs, the Speaker addressed the principles around which any future change needs to be built.

Change is not just about tinkering with the rules of an institution but about transforming the culture inside to make sure reforms really happen. Any reforms need to be made along several dimensions at once, a mixture of ensuring equal participation, altering the infrastructure and changing the culture.

Although passion and even anger can be normal parts of political discourse, he emphasised the need for MPs to be treated with respect. He also pointed out the importance of making Parliament a more diverse place, a vital democratic principle in itself when, for example, women make up 32% of the MPs in the Commons but 52% of the population – it’s good, but not good enough considering the average voter is likely to be a woman.

Opening up Parliament, he pointed out, is also a way of broadening the views, ideas and experience coming into the House of Commons, and he highlighted the work of Tan Dhesi, the first turbaned Sikh in the House of Commons.

The Speaker ended by making the point that change was also about the culture around politics and how it was reported. Prime Minister’s Questions, while a vital public event, sometimes gives the public the wrong impression of the work of the House and the atmosphere inside. He highlighted his commitment to make the lobby who report on Parliament at least 40% female by 2020.

So, as one audience member asked, will it work? The Speaker argued that without cultural change, no other reforms will really ‘stick’, as ‘culture eats strategy’. But he felt that at a time of unhappiness with elites, and a desire for making things different, the House of Commons was readier for change than it had ever been.

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