As the new SNP MPs settle in to their new life in the House of Commons, a picture is doing the rounds on social media showing a Commons Chamber that is near-deserted, save the SNP benches, which are packed.
The caption from the BBC Parliament channel is ‘MPs are debating safety at HM Naval Base Clyde where the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent is stationed’. The point that SNP supporters and some of the party’s MPs are making is that this shows that the party turns up to debates while other parties can’t be bothered.
It’s a powerful image, and it is not a fake. There is, of course, an explanation as to why the Chamber looks the way it does: this is an adjournment debate, held at the end of the day’s business, and has no vote which can bind the government. The best use of an adjournment debate is to raise an issue (often a local one, though the safety of Trident isn’t really ‘local’), either so that ministers will listen and go away and address that issue in some way, so that the media pay attention and write up the issue, or so that the MP who has secured the debate can send out a press release saying: ‘Joe Bloggs MP puts pressure on government on important local issue’. All of these are essential parts of being an MP.
But there are a number of things that are important parts of the job that take place outside the Chamber, and that MPs may decide are a better use of their time than sitting in a debate. They include working on constituency matters with their staff, sitting in a select or bill committee (not relevant currently as select committees are being re-appointed and scrutiny of bills at committee stage is a way off), being briefed by campaigners on the problems with those bills, holding party meetings or cross-party groups with like-minded MPs worried about the treatment of a certain illness and so on. Or they could indeed be loafing in the pub: but it’s not a dichotomy where if you’re not in the Chamber, you’re not working.
And this is just one debate. Here is another random screen shot of another debate, taking place right now. You can find a screen shot to make any point you'd like about our Parliament, if you like.
What the SNP attendance at this debate does very effectively indeed is that it sends a message to those watching that the party cares about a particular issue. It is PR, yes, but it's clever PR.
As a PR exercise, it also goes a long way to contradicting some of the claims that the party’s new MPs have been spending their time in the Sports and Social since being elected, rather than working.
Some pictures can tell a thousand lies, but this one sends a powerful message to those who see it that the SNP is providing that ‘stronger voice at Westminster’ that it promised, even if numbers make no difference at an adjournment debate. This is especially important given the party has no formal influence over the government, and so it must show that its 56 members can still shake up Westminster in as many ways as possible.
But it will be interesting to see whether the party continues to put in a mammoth attendance at adjournment debates, or whether its MPs decide that they have limited efficacy.