Reshuffle could put a little more order in the House

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Indy Politics
Could this be the future shape of British politics? Labour has already changed the face of the House of Commons overnight once, and now it is under pressure to do the same again to make space for its 146 extra MPs.

Yesterday, the Liberal Democrats backed long-standing calls from some Labour members for the old adversarial seating plan to be swept away in favour of a circular or horseshoe-shaped chamber in the European mould.

The Government has already promised a special committee to look at reform of the House of Commons. It is expected to produce an interim report by July - just in time, the modernisers say, to move carpenters in during the summer recess.

For centuries, opposing MPs have sat facing each other, with two swords' lengths between them. Many of them believe that the yah-boo scenes frequently seen at Prime Minister's questions - which Tony Blair now plans to change - are due to the adversarial system symbolised by this antiquated seating plan.

But now, with 418 members on the government benches and just 241 on the opposition side, the case for change has become more pressing than ever.

Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrats' campaigns and communications chairman and MP for Devon North, is among those now calling for change. "We have been stuck in a time-warp for about 150 years and changing a few of these things is long overdue," he said.

"Even within the existing four walls, it would be possible to change the back of the chamber in such a way as to find more accommodation for Labour MPs and to do something about the adversarial atmosphere."

Mr Harvey believes the huge double doors through which MPs enter the chamber could be replaced by a bank of seats. Access would be through a sort of tunnel such as footballers use to enter grounds.

Labour's former constitutional spokesman, Graham Allen, now a government whip, published a booklet three years ago in which he said the walls of the debating chamber should be knocked out to create a much larger space.

The voting lobbies which run along each side of the chamber should be removed, he said, and a new semi-circular seating plan installed. This would provide a seat for every member and an opportunity for electronic voting.

"In 1547, Edward VI kindly gifted his chapel to the commoners and we've been sitting in the choir stalls - eyeball to eyeball - ever since. Modern Britain requires something different," he wrote. "The carpenter and the electrician will help to contribute to Britain's democratic revival."

In fact, the existing chamber is less than 50 years old, having been bombed during the war and rebuilt in the same place.

While the Conservatives will fit comfortably on their benches and the Liberal Democrats and other opposition parties on the other half of their side of the chamber, Labour's MPs will be crammed into the aisles, crowded into the corners and queuing around the doors for a space. They will fill the cross benches usually reserved for civil servants and some will have to sit up in the gallery.

Then there is Martin Bell. Where should an independent MP, whose campaign was backed by one party now in government and another now in opposition, sit? For now, he will cram himself into a cross-bench from which he is not allowed to speak.

But although many MPs now believe change is necessary, the elder statesmen and women who run the House are unlikely to agree to the change. For the foreseeable future, Tony Blair's new model army will continue to cross swords with the opposition in the old-fashioned way.

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