PMQs is an awkward, lumbering beast; a hangover from the debating societies of Oxford and Cambridge which seems like an anachronism in the modern age. An unrealistic way of gaining or exchanging information, it has become instead a way of doing politics exclusively reserved for the Westminster Village. The public don’t understand it, and hate what they see of it. It’s politics at its most knockabout, most tribal and most insular.
When I wrote a piece in back in January advising Ed not to play the macho game it was felt I had done so not because I found the spectacle unedifying, but because my guy was no good at it up against the master that was Cameron. It wasn’t true then, and even now Ed regularly bests Cameron at the dispatch box, I feel this advice is even more important. Though I now think it doesn’t go far enough.
What is PMQs for? Is it for the opposition to hold the Prime Minister to account on the big issues of the day? Perhaps that is the intention, but it is not the outcome. The opposition invariable lead with the story they think will most hurt the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister will respond not with the answers to the question, but with pithy put downs of the opposition leader and party. This is not new. It didn’t start with Ed and Cameron. But it should end with them.
PMQs should be a space where the public are informed about the decisions and actions taken by government that affect their lives. Ideally it would also be a place where they could find out what the opposition’s objections to these are and what they would propose instead. It should be a space of public illumination, where a light is shone on the different governing philosophies of the day and where a viewer can learn not just what politicians have done and are planning to do, but – crucially – why.
This doesn’t happen for a number of reasons, but I think that principle among them is that the audience for PMQs has never been the public, despite the event becoming ever magnified as other forms of public politicking fall away with the lack of public interest and their ability to go elsewhere.
PMQs have become a place where party leaders have to front for their parties in the Commons. The nature of politics is that the importance of these internal audiences is vastly magnified in the minds of the key participants. On the one hand baying loudly for the blood of your opponent of you’re doing well or quietly squirming if you’re doing badly they create the gladiatorial atmosphere as much by their audience participation as by the combat they are witnessing. The effect on the gladiators themselves of this audience is far greater than the effect of the passive viewer.
The secondary audience is the Westminster Village chroniclers. Bloggers and politicos like me, journalists and observers of the scene; those who know and are intimately familiar with the codes and signs of politics. Those whose job is once was to translate politics to the people before it was opened up by television coverage – though the press or on the doorstep - now instead argue about the winning and the losing, believing that because the public can watch PMQS they can understand it. But the televising of PMQs has not democratised it. It hasn’t changed the secret language in which politicians speak. It hasn’t rid us of the baffling ritual that surrounds the serious business of government. It displays it to an unprepared public, unfiltered and unconcerned at their incomprehension.
The public deserves better and frankly, so does politics. Politics is important. It needs to be better understood by everyone on whom it has an impact and who has a say in our democracy. But to do so, we need to behave as ordinary people can, would and do daily.
I propose we separate PMQs into two separate events – one for backbench MPs of all parties which would largely mirror what we have now, where the Prime Minister of the day is held to account and asked about issues of concern to constituents.
But I also propose a separate event – a radical departure from the norm. I want to see a weekly conversation between the leader of the opposition and the prime minister. Seated around a table with a moderator – the speaker for example – but no one else in the room, the discussion should be wide ranging and free flowing. They should actually talk to each other about the key issues of the day and about what they agree and disagree on. They should use this opportunity not to score points (and I think the lack of an immediate audience would help in this regard) but to show that they are able to discuss in a reasonable fashion what they want to be done. Millions and Millions of ordinary people manage to have meetings in this fashion every week. It should not be impossible for those chosen to represent them to do likewise.
These should not be regulated either like PMQs (with its odd insistence that everything is addressed to the Speaker) not like the debates, timed to perfection so no one can ever sound natural or behave spontaneously, but be a gently moderated conversation.
As we’ve seen recently, politics is becoming increasingly macho which is increasingly meaning it is all heat and very little light. Ironically, taking on this new, unchartered way of dealing with PMQs would be an enormous risk that would take great bravery. Sadly, I fear our politics is too fuelled not by bravery but bravado. It is a loss to our national dialogue that this is so. This conversation rather than the traditional confrontation would be far more likely to rely less on sound bites and actually be two people speaking to each other. And if they are speaking to each other, it might just mean they are more likely to speak to the nation too.