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These are difficult, even dangerous times for our parliamentary democracy. The country is divided and the House is divided. The public view of this House is at an all-time low. Too often, this Chamber descends into shouting and abuse. Relations between this House and the Government are broken. Many of us work under a hail of threats of violence—against us, our families and our staff. So Members’ choice of the next Speaker is really important.
I know that the House wants a Speaker who will be, and who will be seen to be, scrupulously impartial and fair to every MP from every party. When I was Leader of the House, I was exactly that. But it is not just about being fair; it is about perception. We cannot go on with huge decisions being made by one person, behind closed doors. I would reform the Speaker’s powers to make them transparent and accountable to this House, and I would be fearless in standing up for the rights of the House.
I know that the House wants a Speaker who understands what it is to be a Government Back Bencher and an Opposition Back Bencher, and a Government Minister and a shadow Minister, and I have been all those things. My guiding principle would be that all constituencies are equal and, because of that, all Members are equal and owed equal respect. So as Speaker, I would regard it as my responsibility to help you wherever you are in the House, and however long you have been here, to be the best that you can be.
One thing that I have not been is a member of one of our minority parties. That is why, if I were Speaker, I would want a fourth deputy in my team, drawn from the members of the minority parties, so I would have that perspective right at my side.
I know you want a Speaker who will help Parliament change with the times. I have fought for and won reform: making our Select Committees powerful and independent by giving us the right to elect the Chairs rather than their being appointed by the Whips—I did that when I was Leader of the House; setting up the Backbench Business Committee so that we can choose the subject of debates—I did that, too, as Leader of the House; changing the voting system for election of Speaker to make it by secret ballot—I hope that that was a good idea; and just this year, by working with Members across parties, getting the right for new mothers and fathers to vote by proxy when your baby is born.
I am running for Speaker in these difficult times because I have unparalleled experience and an unparalleled record of reform of this House, but there is one other reason I want your vote. Parliament has changed. It is nothing like the old boys’ network it was when I first came in—when I was one of only 3% women Members among 97% men. Now, there are 211 women in every party in the House, and men here who speak up for women’s rights, too, but, in 600 years, there has only ever been one woman Speaker. I do not actually agree with making reference to the Gallery, but I will break with precedent here and pay tribute to Betty Boothroyd. So, in 600 years, there has only ever been one woman. There have been 156 men. This is my question to the House today: can we show the country that we have changed by putting the second woman in that Speaker’s Chair?