I don’t know how many of you will ever have seen a playground fight.
Usually, the combatants ended up rolling around in the dirt and came out of it looking dishevelled and bloody.
But it was the onlookers who always used to fill me with the greatest anger and scorn.
Children would rush excitedly from every corner of the school. Gathering round, they would take advantage of the fight slyly to kick the fighting pupils, or steal things from them. They would chant and bay like a pack of animals.
I always thought that a school fight showed humanity at is lowest possible, bestial level.
‘If anybody is still here by the time I count to three I will punish you alongside these fighting boys … one …’. And they would turn and flee.
Observing the Parliamentary Bear Pit
On the rare occasions I am not too embarrassed to watch Prime Minister’s Questions, I am always reminded of a playground fight.
Here we parade the three most senior politicians in the country – our prime (first, most senior) minister, and his would-be successors – and we force them to have a brawl under the scrutiny of the TV cameras.
None of them ever come out of it looking good, in my opinion.
Cameron, let’s face it, usually wins. But what an arrogant bully he appears, preening and posturing, with his vicious put downs and personal abuse. This cannot be good for our political system which, let’s face it, ultimately relies on compromise and respect.
Cameron himself must fear and dread PMQs. His worst moments – for example that damaging ‘calm down dear’ episode – have come under the pressure of PMQs. And, even when he is seen to ‘win’, he looks arrogant, whilst the press watch for any sign that he has been ‘rattled’ or ‘wrong-footed’.
Ed fares even worse than Cameron. He does not only usually lose, he is frequently humiliated. And, afterwards, newsrooms around the country are alive with it, and how much damage has been done, and whether he will survive. It’s not good for the country so to treat the man who may one day be our leader. It’s not good for thinking democracy or considered government that matters of state should be reduced to a ‘who-scored-most-points’ brawl.
As for Clegg, I think he comes off worst of all. Does he ever say anything? It strikes me that being Deputy PM has effectively deprived him of any voice in this, the chosen showcase of our nation’s democracy. If I were a LibDem, I would be having something to say about it. It adds to the impression that the LibDems are merely Tory poodles and, long term, threatens to portray them as the ‘sidelined’ party, essentially irrelevant to the main thrust of political debate.
Meanwhile, what of the MPs – those men and women upon whom we are relying to guide our nation through the difficulties of the current crisis? They bawl and catcall like a rabid mob. The Speaker tries to restrain them. He TELLS them that the onlooking nation despises them for it … and they take no notice. They are like brutes at a bear pit, determined to satiate their blood-lust. Disgusting, unrestrained irresponsibility.
Meanwhile, on the government benches, ‘silly, weak’ MPs try publicly to grease in with their leader by asking sycophantic questions which give him the opportunity to boast. Other, ‘disloyal,untrustworthy’ Tories use PMQs as an opportunity to get in a sly kick at their leader. Meanwhile, on the Labour side, when David Miliband asks a question, nobody listens to the question – the only thing anybody considers is what move this marks in the Labour leadership debate.
And the worst thing the MPs do? When the demeaning spectacle is over, they ALL get up and leave the room, like schoolchildren fleeing a fight.
Meanwhile the viewers (and I am sure the BBC do this intentionally) SEE them all leaving, but witness the start of the next debate, which is usually about something like ‘how we can give our children the best start in life’ or ‘how to get young people a job’ or some such issue of great importance to the public … who thus watch their MPs walking away from that debate, and leaving it to perhaps a dozen apparently more responsible MPs to decide the nation’s fate.
Occasionally, a back bencher will ask a genuine question about something that does actually matter to his constituents. But because PMQs is solely about scoring points and NOT about actually governing, the Prime Minister’s reply is always ill-informed, shallow and patronising. Cameron is in bully-and-strut mode, not represent-and-govern.
And yet – whilst we wring our hands about why people have stopped voting, and why they despise their MPs – we still insist on continuing to parade this meaningless, demeaning charade as the centrepiece of the week’s politics.
PMQs gives ALL the wrong messages about government, parliament, our democracy and our MPs. So what do we do? We televise it and broadcast it TO THE WORLD, so that everybody from the French to the Iranians can decide that we have a government of morons.
What Can Ed Do?
When I was an ordinary teacher, I can remember being hugely critical of the Heads of Year, who seemed as a body to be ineffectual and ‘wet’. When I became a Head of Year, I can remember making a mental note not to be so critical of my seniors in the future – it was not quite as easy a role as I had imagined.
So I am sure that the ‘PMQs Question’ is a lot harder than any of us appreciate.
Nevertheless, in the spirit of my ‘rants’, I am going to share what I feel, and if I am wrong, at least that’s got those ideas considered and rejected!
So, Mr Miliband, here are my ideas, if I were you:
1. I would announce that, when I became Prime Minister, I was going to abolish PMQs in its current form. I would denounce it loudly and frequently for the sham and the shambles that it is. I am convinced that, if PMQs serve any useful function whatsoever in our democracy, that function could be better served in another arena, with different rules. (At least campaign to get the cameras removed, and the press and public excluded – nothing could be worse than this weekly exhibition of everything that is incestuous, introverted and futile about our Parliamentary system.)
2. I would consciously and gradually downgrade the importance of PMQs to whatever extent it was in my power to do so. Unless, they had a specific question to ask, I would persuade as many MPs as possible to stay away – let Cameron strut to empty benches. Of course Ed is going to have to raise matters of national importance that have hit the headlines – he would be regarded as negligent if he did not do so – but as far as possible I would give up my half-dozen questions to backbenchers who had genuine questions about their constituencies – let Cameron flounder to a string of questions about by-passes, windfarms and Mrs Trellis from North Wales. Let’s use PMQs to ask questions that matter to ordinary people.
3. I would impose proper discipline on Labour MPs. We cannot do anything about the rest of the chauvinistic, ill-mannered Bullingdon boys, but we can listen to the Prime Minister with the respect his position (though not the man) deserves. And wouldn’t it be lovely if, after PMQs, more Labour MPs walked IN to the chamber to debate the next bill than were walking out of it after PMQs.
4. I think Labour supporters need to resign themselves to the fact that Ed will NEVER ‘wipe the floor’ with Cameron. It is not just that he is personally ill-equipped so to do. When one is faced with a strutting bully like Cameron, it is IMPOSSIBLE to fight him without rolling around in the dirt and becoming as despicable as he. There are no Queensbury rules in the bear pit.
So I would stop trying to score points. Ask questions that have answers, so that Cameron has to choose whether to answer the question or showboat. Choose issues of national, rather than political, significance, and force him to be presidential not combative. Make principled, unarguable statements on matters of principle and treat his responses with utter, utter disdain. LIE IN WAIT for him to make an ill-judged comment and then move in to take him apart. And, ever-so-occasionally, let out just a little bit of that rage that the public feels about this careless, useless government which is steering us towards disaster.
You are not John Humphrys, Mr Miliband, and you never will be.
I am sure that your performance at PMQs must be the subject of long considerations at the highest levels of the Party. The danger of that, of course, is that – like Gordon Brown – you are so busy trying to follow the instructions of the PR men that you forget to be yourself.
But PMQs are an offence to our government.
My advice is to treat them – and our horror of a Prime Minister – with the scorn they deserve.
For the sake of our democracy, let’s abolish PMQs.