Published on February 17th, 2014 |
by Eleanor Newis
Image © blogs.ft.com
Does PMQs need a “sin bin”?
A recent report by the Hansard Society has found that the majority of the electorate consider PMQs to be “noisy and aggressive”. Despite it being the political event the public are most aware of, the sentiments apparently associated with Prime Minister’s Questions are “noisy” “childish”, “over the top” and “pointless”. Well, what do you know? It seems the great British public are more astute than our governing class give them credit for. They have seen through the rhetoric, and according to the Hansard report find the political point scoring tiresome and annoying.
The Hansard Society – an independent organisation for political research and education – recommended some changes to the PMQs formula; the most sensible being moving it to a Tuesday or Wednesday evening to increase the number of people able to watch the showdown. This makes perfect sense, of course. But my personal favourite remains the “sin bin” for unruly MPs.
Now, one participant in the study (in which Hansard collaborated with YouGov), offered the pearl of wisdom: “it’s a tradition that opposite sides shout and make fun of each other, it’s a pantomime.” If this person is not a political commentator they need to become one. PMQs has always been the ring for weekly political punches; it’s where the sound bites happen, where the week’s insults and jokes will come from. And it has always been this way.
The biggest “pantomime” of all is the insistence by MPs that the weekly bust up is not a pantomime. This is reflected in the statistics thrown up by the Hansard report: two-thirds questioned agreed there was too much political point scoring, and 48% thought that MPs didn’t behave professionally. Now, it’s particularly interesting that the word “professional” is being used: you’d think that amongst all the attention seeking and sucking up to the media, MPs would at least be doing their jobs. And maybe they are – but crucially, the British electorate don’t seem to think so.
This image of MPs is a problem in itself; even if they are dealing with important issues, as 40% asked actually agreed they did, their presentation of these issues isn’t getting through. One participant in the study expressed the (genuinely plausible) suspicion that after the cameras were turned off all the MPs had a laugh together, commended each other on their wonderful performances, and went down the pub. And this opinion was the overwhelming majority of those asked: for 47% who agreed PMQs was “too noisy and aggressive” only 5% disagreed. For those 48% who don’t even think MPs behave professionally, only 16% said that they do.
So, this is not just an unsatisfied few, or a lot of floating opinions, but a definite negative feeling towards our most regular national political event. Prime Minister’s Questions is supposed to be where ministers are held to account, questioned and asked to explain themselves. It exists for reasons of accountability, but it has become another stage for MPs to parade their bloated rhetoric.
What to do? Well, as aforementioned, I am in favour of the “sin bin”. Mainly for the reason that I think it sounds funny, and I’m a little immature. But also for the reason that it would do MPs good to have something, even just a something that sounds rather like a joke, to put a check on the pointless insults and meaningless headline-grabbing jargon that they come out with. Plus, I want to watch the Prime Minister of Great Britain stand in a corner for the duration of his own question session – sorry, being immature again.
Apart from this brilliant idea (which, as you’ve probably guessed by now, I really wish I’d thought up myself) there are some other interesting proposals. My second favourite suggestion (for entirely grown-up reasons this time) is that of a monthly opportunity for the public to ask questions. Hallelujah. Someone somewhere in a think-tank has finally come up with the crazy idea of letting the public ask their own government questions. Just think what a difference this would make – suddenly the “pantomime” put on by MPs for the press becomes something much closer to the public, something that can participate in.
Yes, the tendency of politicians to puff themselves up and emit copious amounts of succinct and radio friendly hot air is not changeable overnight. But it is changeable. The first step is obviously the “sin bin”. The second is to involve the British electorate who have for so long been left out of the actual political events of this country. Allowing voters to ask questions would benefit both them and their politicians. The electorate who are becoming increasingly distant from politics would begin to feel involved again, begin to care about what the politicians were saying back to them – even if only to ridicule it (which, let’s face it, is often necessary).
And the politicians would gradually find it harder and harder to see the British people as a kind of homogenous mass led by the media and as individuals with concerns, livelihoods and ideas. Please, Cameron. Next week’s PMQs should be the one when the public finally get to speak. You haven’t done so well as PM so far – after 2015 you’ll either be ditched by a party yapping at your failure-to-win-a-majority heels, or you’ll be facing another five years of accelerated aging and sleep deprivation. But you can do one wonderful thing, and do it so easily: be the Prime Minister to open up PMQs as a conversation with the public.
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