There is an idiosyncratic book, both eccentric and revealing, to be written one day with a title such as Pick your seat carefully: how the choice of furniture shapes politics.
It could start with the British House of Commons, deliberately designed to seat a smaller number of people than are elected to serve in it, thanks to its nineteenth century origins from a time when even missing the biggest debates and closest votes was considered quite normal for large numbers of MPs. That legacy now means cramped conditions for PMQs and many other occasions, helping to feed the raucous Punch and Judy atmosphere as too many people are squeezed in tight into too little space.
A passing reference too could be made to this year’s Liberal Democrat autumn conference, held in a hall where the wide comfortable seats, generous legroom and gentle lighting all made for a rather subdued atmosphere in the hall much of the time.
From the party leadership’s point of view, the mood was helped of course by the fact that on all the crunch votes it won, and even the one that was won by just four votes would have been won by more had the whipping of Parliamentarians and others not misfired.
But more important than the furniture was the party’s settled view on leadership and strategy. To an outsider, it may seem odd that the Liberal Democrats have less debate on either of these than Labour or Conservatives given what the opinion polls say. Yet very few in the Liberal Democrats see there as being any real choice of whether or not to stay in coalition and see very little in the way of realistic alternatives to Nick Clegg as leader for the 2015 election. Had Chris Huhne been acquitted the story might be a little different, but he wasn’t and so it isn’t. Instead, the debate is over to how to get the most out of coalition and what to do in future Parliaments.
The debates at Glasgow reflected this, with most of the flash points being about what the party should say at the 2015 general election and do after it. The tax policy debate was about the 2015 manifesto, not the 2014 budget. Even much of the controversy on the economy motion was about 2015 and beyond (albeit partly that was a matter of conference tactics). Likewise, although Tim Farron attracted a little flak for a Presidential speech that roamed outside party president territory and rather more into general political leadership territory, not even the most hostile journalist broke out a ‘leadership bid as Clegg may not last till Christmas’ headline.
There will be a moment of potential danger as the European and local election results come in next May, but even then Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians and activists know that much of the flack thrown at Nick Clegg is by virtue of him leading the smaller party in a coalition government. A different name up front would simply attract that flack to themselves instead.
And what if the party, under whoever as leader, suddenly pulled out of government? There was no significant appetite for the that in Glasgow, for two simple reasons. First, voters may often pay very little attention to politics, but voters aren’t amnesiacs. They will still remember that the party agreed to go into coalition and a swift reversal on that won’t win any credit. Credit has to come from showing that the decision was the best of those available and that it brought some benefits.
Second, because if the Liberal Democrats did pull out of the government, it would be open season for the Conservatives to undo much of what the Lib Dems can point to as achievements from going into coalition. Say goodbye to the pupil premium. Wave farewell to free school meals in primary schools. And so on; it is a long list of things that could be undone with needing a majority vote for legislation in Parliament.
You may think the Liberal Democrats have it tough on the doorsteps at the moment. But imagine what it would be like with a pitch of, “Well, we achieved some things but then thought we’d leave government and let the Tories undo them because, well, it turned out we didn’t really want to keep them after all”. Now that would be an unwinnable basis from which to fight an election.