On Question Time last week, politicians tied themselves up in knots over the question of how they can better put themselves across to the public.
It was prompted by the following question:
Various points were raised in the debate which ensued, including whether the prospect of going into the Commons chamber might put women off politics given the testosterone-filled bearpit it can appear to be, and the fact that in the eyes of politicians around the world, PMQs is something to be marvelled at, or feared.
Defence secretary Phillip Hammond’s appearance on the show will be best remembered for muddling up the names of two Labour MPs – but it was his comment, in defence of PMQs, that it’s the part of politics people love to watch, unlike the workings of parliamentary committees.
As debates on Question Time go, it was never going to generate many headlines in its own, but as examples of missing the point go, it’s up there with the best of them.
What’s your reaction when you see grown men and women screaming and shouting at each other? If it’s the pub, you probably make a run for it. But what if those people are the same people who run the country, set our taxes, determine if our hospitals stay open, how good our schools are and whether it’s worth ripping up countryside for the sake of shaving a few minutes off a train ride to London from Birmingham?
Most ordinary folk would do just the same as if they saw that brawl in the pub – and run a mile. And that’s why we see low turnouts at local and general elections. There are few spectacles quite like PMQs, especially if you happen to be there to watch it in person. But the answer to the question in the Tweet above should have been: “No, it doesn’t, and we need to do something about it.”
The day after that Question Time, I was reading the Stamford Mercury, a proper cat killer of a weekly newspaper covering a leafy part of north Cambridgeshire and the southern tip of Lincolnshire. It covered in remarkable depth a well-attended public meeting where residents were demanding a new pedestrian crossing following a road accident.
And I saw this picture, or, more importantly, the quote:
“Nothing has greater impact on decision-makers than the sight and sound of a community speaking with one voice.” In one sentence, Nick Boles does more to reveal how politicians need to change than any number of putty answers about the historical, gladatorial PMQs and the bemoaning of other parliamentary activity being ignored by the public.
It’s where, of course, the media has always been strong. The force of a local newspaper campaign, and increasingly social media, can penetrate through the Westminster bubble and start to make a difference. But you shouldn’t need a social media campaign or a newspaper behind you to get politicians to take notice.
It’s an age old problem, and is age-old because it’s hard to tell how much conviction politicians really have for shaking the old system up. If they are up for change, reading Jack Straw’s autobiography ‘Last Man Standing’ would be a very good idea.
As Blackburn MP, Jack Straw’s contact details were highly prized when I was a reporter in the town. I can’t say I knew him that well, but he was always good toward the local paper I worked for, and never put his constituency second, even when playing a key part in the negotiations over the war in Iraq with the powers that be in Washington.
(As an aside, there’s a story which people use to demonstrate this constituency commitment that he once left a meeting in the White House to take a call from the Lancashire Evening Telegraph about wheelie bins. His autobiography is more his memories of key moments in his life rather than a chapter-and-verse affair, so perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into the fact Straw doesn’t reference this tale.)
It’s a good autobiography, if you’re a political geek. It’s light on sensational gossip, but the chapters on his upbringing are fascinating and, for once, do show how someone’s childhood is reflected in their political beliefs. His belief that the Freedom of Information Act was one of the worst things he did in Government sits awkwardly with the fact it was on his watch as foreign secretary that Britain went to war with Iraq, but you can’t fault his honesty that he thought it was the right thing to do at the time.
Hidden towards the end, however, is reference to action he took in Blackburn shortly after the BNP grabbed their first – and short-lived and only – seat on Blackburn with Darwen Council. People were complaining they weren’t being listened to, so the idea was put forward for Straw to start holding regular public meetings with the council leader and police chief inspector for anyone to raise their issues.
Straw’s commitment was that every issue would be taken away and answered. And so they began. I attended a few as a reporter and they worked. On a Friday night in a part of town which – snobbishly – political colour writers would suggest didn’t scream out democratic engagement, over 100 people crammed into a community centre to raise issues.
For a reporter, it was a goldmine of potential stories in an age where every council report was triple-checked to avoid controversy and where press offices tried hard to squash. But, perhaps more importantly, for voters it was a chance to do what Mr Boles says – and get their views in front of the people who matter.
Straw observes his book that crime was a regular issue in early meetings, less so in later ones. To me, that’s a sign that the police responded to being held to account in such a public way. And without the rigmarole and expense for a democratically elected police commissioner adding a confusing layer to beaurocracy.
Likewise, the council, in my view at least, became more interested in some of the bread and butter issues which people actually talk about – things like litter and dog fouling.
If politicians are serious about being more engaged with their local voters, and the electorate at large, they need to take a leaf out of Straw’s book – perhaps literally. Bringing power to the community halls of the UK will do far to increase respect for politicians than any number of gallant attempts to praise the anarchic world of PMQs.
That an insisting MPs come from the constituency they represent, of course, but that’s another post entirely….