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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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