In an earlier post, I drew attention to my article in Parliamentary Affairs on the importance of informal space in legislatures – places where members gather informally (dining and tea rooms, division lobbies, corridors) and in which discussion between MPs can serve as means of socialisation, information exchange, lobbying, and mobilising political support. The article was published online last year and I am pleased to report has just appeared in print in the March issue of the journal.
In terms of mobilising political support, the article draws out the extent to which the neglect of informal space contributed to the loss of the Conservative party leadership by both Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher. Their loss of support clearly had major political consequences.
The publication of the article is timely given current events. Developments in the House of Commons over Brexit can only partially be explained in terms of what goes on in public space, that is, the chamber and committee rooms. The cameras have focused on debates and votes in the Commons. However, what goes on in both private space – not least meetings of the 1922 Committee – and informal space is equally crucial for determining outcomes. Informal space is especially important inasmuch as it not publicly visible and, therefore, reportable. What is formally private space is not always that private. Meetings of the 1922 Committee are formally private, but in practice proceedings are quickly leaked to the press. Indeed, at the meeting on 27 March, when Theresa May said she would be willing to step down from the premiership, news of her announcement was being carried by the media before the meeting had even ended. The value of conversations in the tea rooms and corridors is that they are not usually seen or leaked to the press. They may be seen by whips and Parliamentary Private Secretaries, who hover for the purpose of seeing who is saying what and to who, but they form part of the deliberations within parties (and sometimes, as now, across them). What is discussed may lead to a change in behaviour by members.
As the examples of Heath and Thatcher demonstrate, party leaders cannot afford to neglect informal space. Theresa May is not a natural when it comes to utilising such space, but at times like this, she and her allies may find it essential.