8 May 2010

Constitutional change will depend on architectural change

Adversarial politics
When I show video clips of British politicians in action to audiences from other European countries, it often prompts comments about how aggressively adversarial our politicians are compared with those in other parts of Europe.

The point my audiences make is that the possibility/probability that they might have to work together in a coalition government means that politicians in countries like Germany and the Netherlands can't risk completely alienating competitors who might soon become their colleagues.

I then start waffling about the history of church architecture and the way in which our adversarial attitudes are built into the palace of Westminster itself, where the House of Commons is arranged in choir stalls, with government and opposition confronting each other across a central aisle.

Sometimes, I complain about Winston Churchill's insistence, after it had been bombed during WW2, on having the chamber rebuilt as it always had been - when it could have perfectly well have been rebuilt as a horseshoe (and with enough seats for all MPs to be able to sit down at the same time).

The biggest 3rd party vote in Europe with the smallest 3rd party representation in Europe
Then, if time allows, I go on to point out that, since the foundation of the SDP and its merger with the Liberal Party to become the Liberal Democrats in the 1980s, Britain's third biggest party has received a higher percentage of the votes cast in general elections than any other third party in Europe - in spite of which they only get a pitiful and completely unrepresentative proportion of the seats in parliament.

My point is that, at least since 1983, we have not been living in a country neatly divided into two rival political positions, but in one where we're divided into three main groupings, the third biggest of which averages around a one quarter of the votes (ranging from 25% in 1983 to 23% in 2010).

Time to turn the choir into a horseshoe
Now that 52% of the electorate has just voted for parties committed to electoral reform, I fear that the Conservative Party is the only one left that's failed (or simply refuses) to recognise that we no longer live in a society made up of 'us' and 'them', especially as it's going to be at the heart of the crucial negotiations currently taking place.

So I want to remind everyone involved of something I've seldom heard discussed in arguments about different voting systems, but which will need to be resolved as part of whatever package is eventually agreed, namely:

For the results of elections held under new voting arrangements to work effectively, they MUST be accompanied by new seating arrangements.

This was clearly acknowledged in the design of the new chambers for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly (right), both of which are elected by proportional voting systems.

Current negotiations about constitutional change should therefore include the essential question of architectural change.

And the best suggestion I've heard so far is that the present House of Commons chamber should be turned into a museum and replaced by a new horseshoe chamber across the road at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre.


Will said...

It may look adversarial, but its pretty common knowledge that MPs get on very well with each other - the pairing system couldn't work without it. Indeed, generally most Ministers get on well with their shadow. I agree that facing each other makes it look adversarial, but I do believe that's the limit of it.

Brian said...

It used to be said that it was a waste of money for the Euopean Parliament to travel between Brussels and Strasbourg, but electronic documents must make that a lot easier. I think we should have a Northern House of Commons in somewhere like Newcastle and Parliament should convene there two weeks out of four. That would break up the Westminster bubble, balance up travel for MPs and expose them to a broader cross-section of the country.

Max Atkinson said...

Will - I don't think how well MPs from different parties 'get on' with each other on day-to-day matters is really the issue for two reasons. One is that I know from the days that Paddy Ashdown first became leader of the LibDems how difficult he found it to speak with opponents booing and heckling both from behind his back and from other side of the aisle in front of him. Another is that I also know that seating arrangements can make a huge difference to the way interaction works, whether we're talking about dinner parties, meetings, seminars, courtrooms or parliaments.

Brian - I'm inclined to agree that it might be a good idea for the Commons to sit in different places, though the additional expense probably wouldn't go down to well with a lot of people.

Rich Edwards said...

The Commons already is a museum isn't it? Or a playhouse at least. Our voting system delivers a fictional chamber.

A new seating arrangement is needed quite apart from PR. The strongest argument is that every representative should be able to sit and debate in the House at the same time. The fact that the current chamber is too small is a scandal.

I would not turn the Commons chamber into a museum. Instead it should be remodelled. A clean and symbolic break with the past. While the rebuilding goes on the House could meet in Church House.

simon said...

Hi Max

Interesting issue you've aired here.

The HoC authorities have already tried the horseshoe format with the Westminster Hall debates. Having sat in the officials' box in each, it was my view that the horseshoe shape WAS much less confrontational but, as a result, it was also MUCH more boring. Conflict is exciting: that's what gives the House its special atmosphere, it's why we like PMQs and it's why the leaders' debates were so popular. I'm all for constructive politics behind the scenes provided we get some good servings of gladiatorial combat every now and then (which is pretty much the way that modern politics does work in practice if truth be told).

This hunger for combat does and always will squeeze the third party out. We're used to thinking of combat in two way, not three-way terms; in this respect, the architecture of the house only replicates the architecture of the human mind.

V best,