The length of two swords

Recently, the brilliant UK actor Philip Glenister (Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, State of Play, Mad Dogs, Hidden, etc.) was interviewed on the Andrew Marr show in connection with his latest role, that of Chief Government Whip in the play “This House“, which is set in 1974, when Labour had a shaky minority government.The discussion turned to the innately adversarial nature of politics in the UK House of Commons, with Marr noting that the play was in some ways an attack on the British parliamentary tradition, that of two sides against each other, and that underneath, there was a dream of a better way of doing things, a call for politics to be more consensual. Glenister noted that UK was “one of the few democracies, just by the layout of our parliament… it’s in a rectangular shape as opposed to in the round. It’s only one of two in the world.”

If Glenister is correct, and there are only two democracies in the world with rectangular Chambers which force government and opposition to face off against each other on opposing sides, then the Canada is the other one. The Canadian House of Commons, the Senate and most of the Canadian provincial and territorial legislatures are also rectangular, the exceptions being the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut and the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories.

What is being implied here is that layout of the Chamber, government on one side, opposition parties on the other, makes our politics more adversarial because it imposes an “Us vs Them” feel from the outset. This is the same argument put forward by architects in this very interesting article, “The Shape of Debate to Come“.

However, it is debatable to what extent the shape of the chamber might influence how adversarial or consensual debate will be. As Professor White notes in the above article, countries which end up with a more consensual approach to politics also tend to use some form of proportional representation rather than First-Past-the-Post:

But, in an email, he said there was “pretty much zero” chance of more co-operative behaviour in Canadian legislatures. And he put the differences in approach in legislatures such as Wales and Scotland more down to mixed electoral systems, not just first-past-the-post.

He said: “Unquestionably the opposing rows of benches in standard Westminster parliaments reinforces the adversarial nature of the place; for my students I liken it to opposing armies or sports teams squaring off. At the same time, I see seating arrangements as very much secondary to underlying political culture and prevailing political norms.

“The Manitoba [legislature], which is semi-circular, has exceedingly nasty, adversarial partisan politics, and the US Congress these days is hardly a paragon of non-partisanship.”

Because PR makes it very difficult for any one party to form a majority government on its own, this means that coalition government tends to be the norm in countries which use some form of PR, and that reality alone will require parties to work harder to find some sort of consensus. As Prof. White points out, despite sitting in the round, politics in both Manitoba and the US Congress are very partisan and adversarial, and both jurisdictions use FPTP. The Australian House of Representatives is horseshoe-shaped, and politics Down Under is every bit as partisan as it is up here, particularly in the current minority parliament. Australia uses the Alternative Vote to elect its MPs, a voting system which requires voters to rank the candidates on the ballot in order of preference, and to win the seat, a candidate must gain over 50% of the vote, either outright, or through transferred preferences. AV, like FPTP, is not at all proportional, which may explain why political debate in the House of Representatives is partisan and adversarial.

This summer, it was reported that the UK Parliament could be closed for five years for extensive refurbishment, with MPs and Lords “convened in a replica chamber or a conference centre for the duration of the repair work, which could start in 2015.” This immediately alarmed some. The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson raised the threat of some advocating that a new, refurbished chamber would be “a chance to move the MPs to a lifeless, European style semi-circular chamber that supposedly encourages them to co-operate.” Fraser comments on how deathly boring debate is in the Scottish Parliament, which is circular. He does not mention that Scottish Members of Parliament (MSPs) are elected using Mixed-Member Proportional representation (MMP).

But is the electoral system alone enough to determine how consensual or adversarial politics will be in a given jurisdiction? Thomas Carl Lundberg, in his paper “Politics is Still an Adversarial Business: Minority Government and Mixed-Member Proportional Representation in Scotland and New Zealand“, concluded that while both nations introduced MMP in part to bring about a “new politics”, in the end, “the impact of institutional engineering upon the behaviour of politicians has been limited.” New Zealand adopted MMP in 1996, Scotland in 1999. New Zealand has seen the formation of mostly minority governments under MMP (albeit minority coalition government rather than single-party minority government) supported by other smaller parties through confidence and supply agreements, while Scotland has experienced two terms of majority coalition government, one term of single-party  minority government, and most recently, to the surprise of most, a single-party majority government.

The reasons why MMP has had limited success in curbing adversarial politics in Scotland and New Zealand, according to Lundberg are varied. Long before New Zealand adopted MMP, it had a very strong two-party system (Labour on the left and the National Party on the right) and a long history of single-party majority government. With the introduction of MMP in 1996, that didn’t really change. Politics remained quite adversarial between Labour and the National Party, but both of the main parties learned to work with the much smaller parties in order to form governments.

Scotland on the surface may appear more consensual, but there are other tensions at work. Scotland has a true multiparty system, that is one in which “there are three to five relevant parties which are not separated (polarised) by a large or intense ideological distance” (which isn’t the case in New Zealand). Rather, Scotland’s party system “is characterised by two significant cleavages” – class divisions and “the process of building the UK (with England at the centre dominating the periphery composed of Scotland, Wales and Ireland) in the latter.” The two largest parties in Scotland are Labour and the Scottish National Party – both are centre-left, and they have a long, adversarial relationship dating back before devolution, or to quote the former leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats: “there is a level of visceral hatred between the Nationalists and Labour to this day. So, it just transferred from London to Edinburgh … we just so massively underestimated how important it is for people to have good, personal relationships across all parties.”

Simply put, how adversarial or consensual politics might be in a given democracy will depend on many factors. While the shape of the debating chamber and the voting system used to elect members undoubtedly play a part, changing one or both will not necessarily bring about more polite politics.

Related Posts: