Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Coalition Seating Arrangements



So 'Nick Clegg says his biggest mistake as leader was sitting next David Cameron at PMQs' (article here) - was he right?

Well, he might just be slightly underplaying the importance of one or two other issues, like the dreaded tuition fees, for example, but I think he's certainly correct in identifying that this was an important problem of perception. The Liberal Democrats have to recognise this if we are going to build towards a future return to government. The problem does go a little deeper than just PMQs itself, of course.

So what am I calling the 'problem' here? Well, it's the all too common public perception that in forming a coalition government we had 'joined the Tories', as if we had somehow become part of their party, signed up to their party's constitution and aims, and become nothing more than a vaguely irrelevant branch of, or pressure group within, the Conservative Party. That perception is very wide of the mark, of course - we were, and still remain, very much our own party, with our own constitution, aims and ideas. We were never 'Tories', and never 'joined the Tories' - we agreed to work with the Conservatives in a mature and responsible manner to form a joint, two-party, coalition government so that we could both provide stable government (at a time when that was desperately necessary to the UK) and so that we could finally get the chance to enact at least some of our long-held policies and principles (as indeed we successfully did).

Many people don't seem to get that, though. A very commonly expressed public perception is that we 'joined the Tories' and/or 'sold our souls for a ministerial car' - it was during the coalition years, and it still is now. It was never the case, and it should never have happened. However, I'm not going to get lost in recriminations and blame over it. Indeed, I don't think anyone is really to blame for not fully appreciating every one of the potential pitfalls of coalition perception, or for underestimating the way in which other parties and their allies would close ranks to portray us as 'traitors to ourselves' and an 'irrelevance'. Were the Lib Dems a little naive about such things? Yes, I think we were, but you have to remember that nobody had formed a peacetime coalition in living memory, and nobody had ever formed on in the context of modern UK politics, social media, and so on. It's not about laying blame - it's about learning for the future (the only people who never make mistakes are people who don't do anything!).

The seating arrangement as noted by Nick Clegg is one of those issues that we didn't really anticipate fully in terms of how it would leave us perceived. The 'rose garden incident' is another important one. We were, of course, quite rightly focussed on the 'real' business of how to do government business in that scenario, and we were, understandably, concerned about the perception that coaition government couldn't work. We made the mistake of going too far, though, and appearing not only too close, but too integrated with the Conservatives in government.

House of Commons seating arrangements were one of the problems - every time a member of the public saw some footage from parliament (PMQs or others), there our MPs effectively were, sat happily among the Tories. Chatting away with our good friends, sharing common causes with them, and jointly opposing the benches opposite, as if we were one party in all but name. Hindsight is always 20/20, of course, but we, and indeed everyone else in politics, needs to learn the lesson so that the same issues never happen again to any party. 

And that's a key point - it's not just about us as Lib Dems and what we have lost in terms of our MP numbers, it's about politics as a whole. It does a disservice to politics for parties to not be seen for what they are. Any parties. It skews the debate if the perception of any party, especially any smaller party, is based on them just being effectively a part of another party. It actually has an effect on votes cast at the ballot box.

So how should our MPs have sat? Well, the obvious answer is in a separate block of our own MPs, at the far end of the government benches from the speaker's chair, with our government ministers at the front of our own group instead of side by side with Tory ministers. That does create a potential opposite issue, though, with the party not appearing relevant, involved and central to the government program - we really shouldn't allow that to happen either. How do we avoid that too? Well, obviously there is a practical issue with the seating of ministers when they are going to need to speak at the dispatch box - they need to be sat on the front bench in front of it. We can't surround them with their own MPs all the time (and we can't constantly play musical benches around the House of Commons), but we can have a degree of separation between government ministers of different parties at different ends of the bench fairly easily in most circumstances. It's a small thing, but a necessary one if we are going to support multi-party politics in the UK.

How do we deal with PMQs itself? On the one hand, if the Deputy PM had been sat at the other end of the chamber, there would be a danger of the party appearing irrelevant. On the other, there's the issue of appearing to be part of the larger party, which is what has happened. My suggestion would be, as part of an agreement between the parties, that the smaller party MPs and ministers should group at the opposite end when the PM is there, but when the Deputy PM is taking the questions (as they do sometimes when the PM is out of the country) the parties 'change ends', so that the Deputy PM is, for that session, surrounded on all sides (the front bench and benches behind) by his (or her) own MPs. 

If and when this kind of political situation happens again, we need to learn from past mistakes. We need to make sure that the party is seen as an entity in its own right, important and at the centre of government, but not merely as a now-fully-integrated 'sub-party'. House of Commons seating agreements have to form part of an overall agreement to form a government in future. It does matter. While it might seem a trivial issue in the grand scheme of running a country (and indeed it is), the perception it creates can be a massively important part of politics. Nick Clegg is right to identify this as a mistake - it was. A mistake we should learn from, though, not one we should be seeking to blame anyone for.

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