John Bercow: What should a 21st century Parliament look like?

The Speaker of the House of Commons was omni-present on the last day of the Political Studies Association conference. After a morning session with NICVA, a post lunchtime session on engagement and impact, he wrapped up the conference by delivering the closing lecture.

School children studying politics packed the room, more than making up for conference delegates who had left for early flights.

In asking “what should a 21st century Parliament look like?“, John Bercow said that it needed to represent 21st century democracy and went on to define what a ‘dynamic democracy’ would look like.

  • If parliaments are to be as consequential in the present and the future as at their best they have been in the past, then their internal balance between their chamber and their committees will need to become more flexible.
  • A truly modern parliament will need to engage in constant internal innovation and be much more accessible externally.
  • Legislatures are much more likely to achieve this desirable state of affairs if they pay more attention than in the past to what other parliamentary bodies are doing. The case for a really internationalist mindset has never been stronger.

In the course of his speech, John Bercow praised the resource of the Parliament website and BBC Democracy Live, and spoke about outreach work as well as plans for an education centre that will allow thousands of children to experience their parliament in London.

After the lecture, John Bercow took questions from children in the audience, including one that asked whether the fact that swing voters in swing seats had most influence at election was a failure of democracy. He answered deftly, saying that there needed to be a means to decide polls, that the current first past the post system usually produced clear majority governments, and that the AV debate had been held and lost. He went on to point out that MPs do not just server those who voted for the, but should help everyone equally. He also fielded a question about alternative decision-making methods for multi-option issues.

No doubt over the weeks and months ahead, political scientists and parliamentarians will want to pour over his message and analyse the impact of putting it into practice. Feel free to record your comments and reactions below!

  • Pete Baker

    “No doubt over the weeks and months ahead, political scientists and parliamentarians will want to pour over his message and analyse the impact of putting it into practice.”

    I’m not sure they will, Alan.

    It would depend on the regard they hold this particular Speaker in…

  • Bercow argues for paying attention to what other legislatures are doing. I was at the World E-Parliament Conference at the US Congress in 2009. The only people there from the Westminster Houses of Parliament were librarians and Hansard staff talking about how to transcribe speeches in the house.

    Nancy Pelosi and her fellow congresswomen and men were there, enthusing about their work to get more young people engaged with the parliament. There were no UK politicians.

    Chile has a virtual senate, and Brasil a virtual chamber of deputies, in which citizens can go online to participate in shadow debates on the same topics being debated in parliament – in advance of the in-house debates, so that the parliamentarians taking part in the on-line ones can learn from the experience of outsiders (not just paid lobbyists). But I have never heard anyone in Westminster, Whitehall or Stormont looking at that (although some in Scotland have).

    Even the Oireachtas is closer to a 21st Century Parliament than Westminster. A joint committee of the Dail and the Seanead ran an e-consultation in 2006 on what should be in the Broadcasting Bill. In our evaluation report ( I wrote a section explaining what a 21st Century Parliament might look like.