We live in a democracy on which many others are based. We live in a democracy which many believe we should impose on other countries.
Yet I imagine it would be hard to find anyone who sat through Prime Minister’s Questions who would have left feeling proud about our democracy.
PMQs is billed as the political focal point of the week. It’s where two political leaders go toe-to-toe … but for what purpose?
Such is the gladiatorial nature of PMQs that it has long stopped serving a useful purpose to anyone other than those working in the mini-industry it has created.
The sight of 650 people who cast around for our votes every five years shouting, pointing, jumping, booming, shrieking and heckling in one of the most historic and beautiful buildings we own is enough to put anyone off politics.
Now, more than ever before, politicians worry about being seen as out of touch with the wider public. And Ed Miliband ends up eating a bacon sandwich badly, George Osborne drops his Hs when in Kent and David Cameron well, he leaves his kids behind in the pub.
But that all goes to waste – if indeed any of us fall for it – when the playground irrelevance of PMQs kicks off every week.
If politicians really want to be seen as more in touch with the real world, they’d can PMQs in its current form, and replace it with something more appropriate. Here’s how:
1. Remember the name
It is called Prime Minister’s Questions. As in ‘questions to the prime minister’. Yet the current prime minister struggles with answers. Ed Miliband’s opening question today about the number of hospital units David Cameron said ‘he’d bare-knuckle fight to save’ which have subsequently closed was of course a trap, but it was also a question. And by not answering, Cameron shows contempt for transparent governance.
2. Remember the name part 2
Cameron then often tries to turn questions back on Miliband, as he did today with the constant questions about whether Miliband he has said he planned to weaponise the NHS during the election campaign. Miliband is the leader of the opposition and has every right to ignore questions fired back at him. He also had an ideal opportunity to deny a potentially toxic allegation and in failing to do so he only served to further stoke a style of politics which is powered by rumour and suggestion, rather and a politics which actually gives people information. And proof he probably did say it.
3. Remember the name part 3
Ultimately, Cameron was successful in knocking Miliband off track, as the latter by his sixth question was just throwing insults and allegations, not asking questions. It was a battle for soundbites to please broadcasters. The problem with PMQs is the front bench of each party, so the solution is:
4. Ban the front bench from speaking, and fine them for gurning
Make PMQs a chance for those who don’t have access to the Prime Minister to ask questions which matter to their constituents. The front bench can attend, but they behave with dignity or get fined/banned.
5. End the waffle
Questions should be exactly that, questions. Not loaded statements with a slight rise in voice at the end. All questions should be two sentences long. We don’t need names of constituents, or background, just questions on issues.
6. Behave like grown ups
Questions should be asked in a room which is otherwise silent. Football crowds are better behaved than the shower we see at Westminster. It’s an insult to the memory of every soldier killed that 650 men and women can bow their heads in memory at their sacrifice at 12.01pm and by 12.02 be baying and screaming at each other.
7. Be realistic about what the PM can really know
Councils have lost half of their income due to spending cuts. Yet in Whitehall, they still have the resource to present the prime minister with a binder a foot thick every week with the answer to pretty much any question going. It’s political self-indulgence which does nothing to help run the country. A waste of money. The PM should be allowed to answer honestly, and say if he doesn’t know the exact details, he will get an answer. The chief executive of Apple won’t know about every aspect of his company in depth, so how can we expect the PM to?
8. Don’t ask politically-loaded questions
There were real issues to debate on the NHS today, yet the first backbench question from a Labour MP concluded with a line along the lines of ‘isn’t this why people must vote Labour to save the NHS?’ That’s like a journalist referring to an interviewee as a ‘thick, smelly cretin’ and hoping to get a sensible answer – any chance of a sensible response is thrown out of the window.
9. Questions should be a surprise
Too many questions are clearly pre-planned and made known in advance. What on earth is the point of that, other than to manufacture a form of theatre which doesn’t reflect real life, and therefore denies us the chance to decide based on reality who we should vote for?
10. Make political debate more frequent
I actually think Cameron and Miliband going toe-to-toe is healthy, if they can actually debate issues, rather than rehearse slogans. They should be monthly, televised, and be between just the two of them. Politics will be much better served if we don’t have Ed Balls, Harriet Harman, William Hague and George Osborne gurning in the background. And a professional adjudicator, rather than the appallingly ‘look at me’ John Bercow, would ensure we actually got answers, rather than waffle.
Will it ever happen? Of course not. Politicians love PMQs too much. To them it’s a sport. To the rest of us, it’s proof that they just don’t get the real world.