It’s a typically odd quirk of the British political system that there is no rule as to where opposition MPs can sit in the chamber.
This was important last week after the SNP caused a major row in Parliament by breaking with tradition and grabbing the opposition front bench in a debate about welfare reform. In doing so, the party gave a glimpse of the lengths smaller voices sometimes need to go to be heard in crowded conversations.
The SNP were mirroring the actions of minor parties through the ages, trying to find some way of getting their message across in parliament’s two-party dominated system. In fact, the Lib Dems used exactly the same trick after the 1997 election, leading to a characteristically blunt response from Speaker Boothroyd.
The SNP are quickly learning a difficult lesson. Much was made of the ‘jockalypse’ (as Boris Johnson put it) during the election and for a time it looked like the SNP would hold the balance of power in this parliament. The media hyped the impact they could have in Westminster and the SNP openly courted this new found attention.
But following the unexpected election result, they are now getting used to the reality that, however wild your electoral success, it’s difficult to make a difference if there’s a majority party. This has become clear in their battles on the Welfare Bill and the Budget, and their inability to force their way in the ongoing negotiations over the Scotland Bill. It is not just legislation either; media coverage of political parties naturally gravitates towards the corridors of real power.
Like the Lib Dems before them, the SNP have to find inventive ways to get their message out there. Alongside ‘bench-gate’, there was the ambush of the fox hunting vote and the much publicised battle with Dennis Skinner in the early days of the parliament. To be fair, it’s often worked. Taking the front bench got the party far more coverage on the Welfare Bill than if they’d quietly delivered their arguments from their usual place in the chamber.
As communications professionals, we are often in the business of advising clients who are small operators in sectors crowded by bigger players. There can be a struggle to get the voice of the little guy heard among bigger beasts. But as the SNP are showing, on perhaps the biggest media stage of all, that a little creative thinking and the courage to shake things up can get people listening.
Kai Pritchard is a senior account executive at Camargue.