We need to talk about PMQs

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 26th February 2014

Prime Minister’s Questions hit the headlines last week following a Hansard Society report that found nearly half of their respondents thought it ‘too noisy and aggressive’. The Speaker, John Bercow, supported the report, criticising the ‘orchestrated barracking’ at PMQs.

But with all the focus on the decibels and ‘public school twittishness’ of MPs, the real problem with PMQs has been obscured. The truly damaging part of this ‘orchestrated barracking’ is not so much the tone of the barracking as the fact that it is orchestrated. Arguably more damaging to the institution of PMQs than the brays of MPs is the acceptance of planted questions, and the co-ordination of this spectacle. The point of PMQs, as with any ministerial question time, is to hold the Prime Minister to account; a critical task in our executive-dominated legislature, but one which is increasingly sidelined in the battle to score political points.

When parties assemble their troops on a Wednesday morning ready to go into gladiatorial battle in the chamber, there is an understandable amount of interest and excitement, but I doubt a great deal of thought spared for the more prosaic job of scrutinising the office of PM. So, in the battle to ‘win’ PMQs in the eyes of the media and fellow MPs, answers bear little or no relation to questions, and questions come second in importance to point-scoring. This is a problem for parliamentary scrutiny before we even consider the wider impact on political engagement.

That impact is, however, considerable. PMQs is, for many, their only experience of the workings of Parliament. People do not watch Bill committee sessions or adjournment debates during which parties work together and sometimes even agree on issues. The ‘yobbishness’ of PMQs, cut down to a few seconds of video on the evening news, is for the vast majority what politics amounts to. No surprise then that many feel important issues are not being given enough weight.

There is some truth to the argument that people enjoy the spectacle of PMQs. Indeed, judging from media analysis, people enjoy Speaker Bercow’s witty put-downs too. But whilst PMQs makes for good entertainment, the public don’t necessarily want this to be the way their politics is conducted. Our research on Tomorrow’s Party (forthcoming) suggests that more collaborative, consensus-seeking politics is preferred. That is not to say that people want all parties to be the same – rather that they should seek to work productively across the political divide.

That means taking the job of scrutinising the Prime Minister seriously. PMQs needs to change from an orchestrated spectacle to a showcase for the best kind of politics.

How should PMQs be improved? Let us know what you think below the line, or on Twitter at #PMQAudit

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