Members of two Turkish political parties scuffle during a debate in parliament, February 2014
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Applying the school canteen theory to the House of Commons

Could giving the political debating chamber an extreme makeover make our MPs behave less boorishly?

I once accidentally took part in a sociology study on behaviour during school meals. The canteen was the worst building in my school, overdue for demolition. In the final year of its use, the standard of behaviour during meals declined to match the trajectory of the building. As much food ended up on the floor as reached people’s mouths; every table was covered in rivulets of spilled water; the background hum of noise was restlessness, not conversation.

While the canteen was being rebuilt, we moved to a temporary dining room. For some reason of convenience, this happened to be the best room in the school, with high ceilings and space between the tables. After one lunch in this new room, a teacher urged me to look at the floor. “Scarcely a drop of water or a scrap of food. Same people, same food, same rules – but a better environment creates wholly different behaviour.”

I’ve seen the same effect in several contexts. One of the pleasures of Hyde Park in the summer is visiting the pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery. Each year, a different architect designs a temporary structure – a café, a public space and an art installation all at once. This year’s pavilion will be the 15th; I remember different summers by recalling the atmosphere of each of them.

My favourite was Frank Gehry’s in 2008. The materials: pale wood and glass. The outlook: classical architecture and mature trees. The effect: sheltered openness. The mood: reflection and lightness. I visited every day that I could.

As well as lifting my spirits, the space influenced other people. In normal circumstances, I would have dreaded a young family parking itself next to me but Gehry’s space calmed everyone. The children, who might scream relentlessly in the perfumed horrors of the duty-free hall at Gatwick, settled into a happier rhythm in Gehry’s light-filled amphitheatre.

Playing cricket at Lord’s subtly changes how professional cricketers behave. Verbal abuse and physical confrontation are rarer; respect for opponents and for the game is more common. And it is not at the expense of competitive fire – the contest is elevated but not dampened.

This brings me to the recent discussion about behaviour in the House of Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions. All of the central players claim to want change. John Bercow, the Speaker, wrote to party leaders urging them to address the “yobbery and public school twittishness”. Ed Miliband argued last month that PMQs “subtract from the reputation of politics”. David Cameron, in his early days as Conservative leader, pledged to reform “Punch and Judy politics”.

Good intentions are easy to state but hard to stick to. So the farcical spectacle continues. Two braying packs boo, heckle and interrupt each other, as though considered ideas could not be allowed to break out. The melee undermines the authority of parliament as well as respect for it.

You can see how and why it happens. One side organises an attack mob; the other side reciprocates. The situation escalates or, more accurately, descends. It is all about short-term self-interest. Yet changing professional self-interest is hard. Perhaps it is easier to change the physical environment. After all, does a 19th-century debating chamber – cramped, gilded, adversarial – best serve 21st-century democracy?

Custom and tradition: that is how the status quo is usually defended. One hero of this approach was Winston Churchill, who played a central role in ensuring that the Commons was rebuilt in the same style after it was bombed in 1941.

It is worth reading Churchill’s speech about rebuilding the House. In it, he ridiculed the consensual style and layout of other chambers: “The semi-circular assembly, which appeals to political theorists, enables every individual or every group to move round the centre, adopting various shades of pink according as the weather changes.” He then argued that the chamber must be kept undersized, preventing all MPs from sitting simultaneously. He was anxious to avoid a flat atmosphere during debates when the House was not full.

Churchill’s speech is skilful and persuasive but I finished reading it unconvinced that his position holds for politics today. His logic leads to opposite conclusions about the optimal shape and mood for a modern House of Commons.

His purpose was to avoid “harangues from a rostrum” while preserving “the conversational style” of politics. Yet the threat to real conversation now is organised shouting, not boring speeches. The professionalisation of politics has produced a conveyor belt of hecklers, all hoping to impress their party’s hierarchy. The squashed, leathery clubbiness of the chamber has proved vulnerable to the modern party machine. The result is a bear pit, not the spontaneous conversation Churchill envisaged.

He praised the “convenience and dignity” of the Commons. Opposite terms now apply. He wanted the design of the chamber to encourage “a sense of the importance of much that is said and a sense that great matters are being decided, there and then, by the House”. The reverse has happened, as power gradually has slipped from the legislature to the executive.

The voters, meanwhile, are increasingly repelled. The macho posturing dissuades many thoughtful potential politicians – especially women – from standing in the first place. With female representation at 23 per cent, the UK ranks 59th internationally, level with Malawi.

Churchill was right that: “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” But not in the ways he intended. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.