Making Use of Space: The Unseen Impact of Mixing Informally

Philip Norton (Lord Norton of Louth)
Professor of Government
University of Hull

Configuration of space in legislatures matters not only for the transaction of formal business, but also for the extent to which it enables members to mix informally with one another, free from formal constraints and observation and direction by party leaders.

Studies of the use of space in legislatures tend to focus on dedicated space for formal gatherings – the chamber and committee rooms – where proceedings are rule-based, observable and measurable. What is less studied is what is essentially unseen behaviour: members gathering informally in the dining and tea rooms, corridors, lobbies and lounges. Such informal contact is not rule-based, formally observable or measurable. It can, however, have significant consequences.

The use of informal space serves to facilitate socialisation – getting to know the norms of behaviour as well as fellow members. This can be significant for female members, especially in parliamentary systems with male-orientated adversarial politics to the fore in formal space, especially the chamber. Its use facilitates information exchange, members sharing their views and information gleaned from other sources and offering opportunities for party whips and leaders to get an idea of attitudes among party members, attitudes that may not be expressed publicly. It is used for lobbying, members with a particular cause seeing other members to press their argument and garner support prior to utilising formal space to make their case publicly; the lobbying may not only be backbench member to backbench member, but backbench member to minister and vice versa. In the UK House of Commons, voting in division lobbies ensures ministers (including the Prime Minister) are physically present to vote and, once in the voting lobbies, can be approached by other members to argue their causes. Ministers and those wishing to be ministers may also utilise informal space to mobilise political support, being seen and listening to other members, establishing one’s credentials as a potential candidate for promotion or, if already in office, keeping supporters in place. Neglect of informal space – failing to be seen and to mix with fellow members – can harm or even destroy a political career. Neglecting to use informal space to build support when their leadership was under challenge was viewed as contributing to the loss of the UK Conservative Party leadership by both Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher.

The importance of informal space is highlighted when it ceases to be available or is constricted. The coronavirus crisis of 2020 forced legislators to decant, wholly or in large measure, the legislature and to operate as discrete entities away from the building. Although formal business may be transacted by virtual means, with some assemblies able to hold virtual plenary sessions, and with committees operating online, it has proved less feasible to replicate the space for members to mix informally. Although members may use social media, creating WhatsApp groups and texting one another, there is not the same capacity to meet someone unexpectedly ands strike up a conversation. What may be termed the serendipity of informal contact is lost.

The constricted or non-existent ability for members to mix informally has significant political consequences. Limiting informal contact between members, and hence the exchange of information, strengthens the executive. Sharing information among members via social media may prevent the executive being a monopoly supplier of information, but the process of sharing takes time and is likely to be reactive. For the executive, limited opportunities for members to meet informally are beneficial in that they reduce the likelihood of spontaneous plotting and rebellions.

This paper examines why the use of space for members to mix informally in legislatures matters and why, without such an analysis, it is not possible to understand fully the behaviour and impact of members of parliaments. There is more to a parliament than what happens in the chamber and committee rooms.

October 9, 2020