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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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