Regular readers will be aware that have variously drawn attention to the importance of the use of informal space in legislatures. In an earlier post, I summarised my article on the subject published in Parliamentary Affairs. In that, I identified the importance of the use of informal space for the institutionalisation of a legislature as well as the consequences for members in terms of socialisation, information exchange, lobbying, and mobilising support to further or protect one’s career.
It is impossible to fully appreciate parliamentary activity without reference to members mixing informally. What happens in formal proceedings – in the chamber and committee rooms – may be shaped by members meeting informally to discuss action and swap information. During a time of crisis, members may huddle in the corridors and tea room to consider what they should do. Unplanned encounters may result in a member gleaning information that transforms their plans. The information may take the form of gossip and may not be accurate, but it my still affect how a member behaves. It can be a significant learning experience. Members mixing informally also limits the executive, given that members can talk – and plot – away from the prying ears of ministers and whips.
Members are aware of the value of meeting colleagues informally and of the extent to which it forms a major part of the parliamentary day. It is difficult to understate the serendipity of informal contact. A chance encounter can prove the catalyst for notable action.
One of the problems of moving to meeting in hybrid form, with most members operating discretely away from Westminster, and with only up to thirty being able to be in the chamber (and socially distanced) at any one time, is that informal contact is limited or non-existent. Working remotely strengthens the position of the party leadership. When working remotely, there is far greater reliance on information sent by the whips. Use of social media and watching proceedings online may help offset this reliance to some degree, but the party leadership enjoys a decided edge in the supply of regular information. Information sent shortly before a division is not offset by information sent by other members. There is no opportunity for a quick conversation with those sat on the benches by you. Contact between members via social media is useful, but usually the result of a decision to get in touch rather than a chance encounter.
I was giving a paper at a conference panel earlier this week on this and I stressed the impact especially on contact between members of the two chambers. My contact with MPs is more likely to be as a result of bumping into them when walking over to, or when having a cup of tea in, Portcullis House – or even when walking along Millbank late at night leaving the Palace – than as a result of arranging a meeting. A good number of these chance meetings have resulted in action on my part or that of the MPs (including on occasion ministers). All that is gone.
It is a feature of parliamentary life that by its nature is not that apparent to those outside Parliament, but it is something of which many members are acutely aware.