An Old Labour warhorse who portrayed rival as a Tory toff

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Indy Politics

As a staunch Catholic and unashamedly "Old Labour" backbencher, Michael "Mick" Martin would appear at first sight to be an unlikely force for modernisation of the House of Commons.

As a staunch Catholic and unashamedly "Old Labour" backbencher, Michael "Mick" Martin would appear at first sight to be an unlikely force for modernisation of the House of Commons.

The MP for Glasgow Springburn, who was promoted to Deputy Speaker in 1997, is renowned for his anti-abortion views and was one of only six Labour MPs who voted against lowering the age of consent for homosexuals. Nevertheless, his dry Glaswegian humour and impeccable working-class credentials, not to mention an impressively organised campaign, were enough to convince many of his colleagues that he was the man for the job.

Not only will he be the first Catholic Speaker since the Reformation, he will also be the first bagpipe player and fluent Italian speaker to take up the post.

A former apprentice sheet- metal worker, he was also an engineering union shop steward and organiser for Nupe, the public services union, before being elected as one of the "lost generation" of Labour MPs elected in 1979, the year of Margaret Thatcher's first victory.

Mr Martin's background, particularly his upbringing in Glasgow's slums, was heavily marketed by his supporters as they canvassed over the summer recess. A key tactic of the campaign was to portray Sir George Young to Labour backbenchers as a "Tory toff" and, crucially, as the favoured candidate of Downing Street. The move proved remarkably effective, with Mr Martin surviving six hours and 11 amendments proposing rival candidates and Sir George failing to win more than a handful of votes from Labour MPs.

He is said to have campaigned discreetly to succeed Betty Boothroyd for the past three years and was among the first to swing into action afterher announcement to quit.

His fellow Glasgow MP Jimmy Wray acted as Mr Martin's campaign manager and the Labour "McMafia" was soon bolstered by northern MPs.

Within hours of his declaration, a rash of bets placed in Glasgow led the bookmaker William Hill to slash his odds from 20-1 to 2-1 before suspending betting altogether. By the end of the summer break, Martin supporters claimed that they had an unbeatable 300 Labour MPs on board.

Yet despite his efficient use of Labour's massive majority, it was clear yesterday that he had trouble attracting early Tory support. Unusually for such a non-partisan post, he could not attract a single Conservative to second his nomination. Worse still, Peter Snape, MP for West Bromwich East and his proposer, attacked Tories during his nomination speech.

But it was in appealing to female MPs, particularly in giving them a fair hearing as Deputy Speaker in debates, that the Commons' most traditionalist member achieved his masterstroke. Although he did not concede that breastfeeding should be allowed in the House, he transformed himself into a moderniser by proposing to make Parliament's hours more family-friendly. Mr Snape said yesterday that Mr Martin wanted to "confront some of our more absurd practices and change those practices".

In his speech, Mr Martin brought into play the mateyness and gentle humour that he has used to defuse tension at various points throughout his Deputy Speakership. "I've never stood to be a whip, a frontbench spokesman or a minister. But come to think of it, nobody ever invited me," he said, to laughter.

Crucially, he went on to state his belief in modernisation, pointing out that it was unfair on the staff of the Commonsto keep them up so late foroften trivial late-night votes. With an appeal once again to help the workers, the "working class" Speaker thus ensured his own election.

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