My research recently has encompassed the significance of informal space in legislatures, that is where members mix informally. Analysis of the consequences of legislatures has tended to focus on the use of formal space – the chamber and committee rooms. Most of the activity is public, some is private (some committees and party groups for example), but it is formally scheduled activity. Use of informal space has tended to be neglected.
In an earlier post, I linked to my article in Parliamentary Affairs that draws out the consequences of the use of informal space. One is lobbying to maintain and enhance one’s political career. This has included party leaders utilising the opportunity to rally support, not least when their leadership has been under pressure. I highlighted the extent to which neglect of informal space contributed to the loss of the Conservative party leadership by Edward Heath and his successor, Margaret Thatcher. In Thatcher’s case, when her leadership was challenged, she failed to go into the tea and dining rooms to rally support, whereas her challenger, Michael Heseltine, and his supporters basically invaded the space.
The failure to exploit informal space has not been confined to Conservative leaders. Labour MP Ian Mikardo reported that Clement Attlee made rare and largely unfruitful forays into the tea and smoking rooms following an ‘Attlee must go’ campaign. George Thomas, later to be Speaker, was clearly not impressed when Hugh Gaitskell was leader: ‘he could not be bothered with anyone who did not share his own views. In the members’ tea room he would sit only with his cronies, making it clear to everyone that he was content to lead a divided Party as long as his supporters were in the majority’.
My article was based on a paper I delivered (pictured, left) at the PSA Parliaments Group Conference at the Scottish Parliament at the end of 2017. One participant noted that I was emphasising leaders who had neglected informal space and wondered whether there were examples of the effective use of such space by a Prime Minister. The example I touch upon in the article is that of James Callaghan as Prime Minister. His use of informal space to mobilise support during his premiership – when he lacked a parliamentary majority – is something I develop in a forthcoming chapter on the relationship between Callaghan and Parliament.
Callaghan was a consummate parliamentarian. He knew how to keep Labour MPs onside. Part of his use of informal space was a consequence of personal and political circumstances. When his principal home was outside London – part of the time he was an MP he had a flat in Kennington Road – he, like other MPs who lived outside London, tended to spend his time in the Palace of Westminster. As Prime Minister, his government lacked a majority and the whips had to mobilise every available MP whenever a division was called. This included minsters and it was not unusual to see the Prime Minister and other Cabinet ministers hanging around in the early hours of the morning waiting for a vote. However, devoting time to the tea and dining rooms was also deliberate. Callaghan recognised that rare appearances would convey the impression that there was a problem. Regularly mixing with MPs would avoid that.
Callaghan was adept at shoring up his political base. He had been in the House for more than 30 years when he entered No. 10 and had used those years to build support in the party and the House. Unlike some other occupants of No. 10, he did not neglect to utilise informal space to keep his MPs onside.