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Ed Miliband: Children behave better than MPs at PMQs

23 February 2014

A rite of passage for any Opposition leader these days is to promise to make politics more decent and connected to people’s lives. One recent Opposition leader said this, for example:

‘And we need to change, and we will change, the way we behave. I’m fed up with the Punch and Judy politics of Westminster, the name calling, backbiting, point scoring, finger pointing.’

David Cameron, who said this in his leadership acceptance speech in 2005, now has a team of MPs who help heckle Labour in the Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions. This was mainly in response to Labour being much better at heckling, with Ed Balls gesticulating and sledging away on the front bench, and Michael Dugher and Sadiq Khan doing similar dirty work on the steps on the Labour side of the house. But Ed Miliband has now reached the stage in his leadership of the Labour party where he wants to do away with Punch and Judy politics, too. He told the World this Weekend that he agreed with Speaker Bercow’s assessment of the session:

‘I’m with him on Prime Minister’s Questions, I don’t think it adds to the reputation of politics, I think it subtracts from the reputation of politics, I think lots of previous leaders, not just of the Labour party, but of the Conservative party would say that too. It’s easy to say it’s a problem, it’s harder to change it, but I’m totally up for finding ways to change it. I try and ask questions that I think the country wants asked because I think I’ve got a unique ability to do that by being able to asked David Cameron six questions each Wednesday. But, look, I know that people are put off by PMQs and the way it works and I would be part of any endeavour to try and improve it.

‘I think it was President Obama who said you can disagree without being disagreeable and in a way maybe that’s a sort of lesson for Prime Minister’s Questions but it’s easier to state and harder to execute. The cauldron of the House of Commons is not conducive to the kind of atmosphere that that invites, but we should always endeavour to do it and we should endeavour to be proud of the show we put on for the country, not giving people a sense that, you know, their kids behave better than we do.’

Miliband is always keen to cast himself as the decent man of politics – and feels that this is one of his great weapons in a presidential-style run-off between him and David Cameron in 2015. But his own attempts to calm the atmosphere at PMQs have so far failed – the Tories stayed noisy and tribal and so Labour just looked a bit sombre or bored.

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I worked on a film for Newsnight this week in which I argued that the tribal, passionate atmosphere of PMQs was a sign of a healthy democracy – but there are some easy things both sides could do that would make the session much, much better. They don’t need to stop cheering and acting as though they’re at a football match: deferential politics is not a good thing. But backbenchers could, as a group, decide that they’re not going to take those ghastly questions from the whips that involve them asking a poorly-worded variation of ‘does my right honourable friend agree with me that he’s doing a fantastic job?’. Some MPs have, to their credit, tried to jazz them up: Alun Cairns has rewritten loyal questions to include references to curry and added his own jokes. But if MPs want more voters to think that parliamentarians spend this weekly session debating the issues that affect real people’s lives, they could at least use their one opportunity to quiz the Prime Minister as an opportunity to really quiz him, rather than just suck up to him.

There’s also no need for MPs to jeer one another when they stumble over questions (although quite often an MP who stumbles is doing so because they are reading a pre-written missive from the whips, rather than asking about something that affects their constituency, for instance).

These are just small changes, and some will argue that the whole nature of the session should change. Miliband was certainly hinting that he thought the structure of the Commons Chamber didn’t help matters in his Radio 4 interview. But the sort of consensual approach encouraged by circular chambers and group systems dilutes the ability of an opposition in checking the power of a governing party and holding it to account over hopeless reforms.

Or else, Miliband is just going through a ‘new politics’ phase like most modern political leaders before him – and nothing will change at all.

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Show comments
  • First L

    Agree, but the hypocrite Miliband is the worst offender.

  • GUBU

    ‘Or else, Miliband is just going through a ‘new politics’ phase like most
    modern political leaders before him – and nothing will change at all.’

    That’s the same Mr Miliband who recently took to appearing in public with a giant fake icecube?

  • Mr Creosote

    Of course Ed Militant decries PMQ’s – that’s because he’s bloody useless at it!

  • dave244

    The one point that is being missed is this one no matter how much bad behaviour there’s during Prime Minister’s Questions the Prime Minister never actually answers the question unless it is one that has been planted in advance by the whips and that is only when they want to make a point

  • Radford_NG

    You miss the point.The main problem is the broadcasting of Parliament.The tradition is that questions are submitted to the Speaker;those chosen are listed on the Order Paper.The Speaker calls the Member who stands up and declares :”Number…..”;and gives the number on the Order Paper.This is meaningless to the Radio/TV audience;and the MP hopes he may be heard asking his question on local radio,so most of them ask what the Minister is doing that day and saves the real question for what is intended to be a supplementary.

    The solution is to allow the real question to be read out,answered,and followed up by a supplementary.

  • rtj1211

    There’s a very simple way: three strikes and you’re out of pocket.

    After three code violations an MP is fined 6 weeks wages, banned from all of Parliament’s drinking establishments and prevented from any intervention in the Chamber during their wage-free interregnum.

    If they flounce off in a huff, they are thrown out of Parliament and banned from working in the public sector for life.

    If a Party has more than 12 code violations in one Parliamentary year, the entire front bench of that Party lose their salary for 3 months. That’ll enforce discipline from the top, won’t it??

    You need that because otherwise, they’ll go for ‘rotational fouling’ with the foul abuse coming out of different miscreants on a planned basis.

    Nothing like treating them like screaming little children. NO pocket money, no sweeties and no favourite TV programmes.

    Bet you anything they don’t have the balls to do this.

    That’s because it’s all spin and fluff, not real substance.

  • Two Bob

    And you are the worst with your nasal vocal tone…

  • London Calling

    Too much Punch and not enough Judy…………….:O

  • RavenRandom

    So Ed will abandon his shocked left wing sixth former face? I was pleased to see that you chose a picture of him doing that, as it’s the image I immediately thought of when I read the article’s title.

  • Hexhamgeezer

    Children would not have elected Bercow as the best candidate for Speaker.

    • Mr Creosote

      Children would not have elected Harman, Dromey and Hewitt either!

  • Terry Field

    Well Billimand should know – he is the cheerleader for cretinous behavior and mob absurdity.

  • HookesLaw

    So Balls going puce and make g a holicks of himself is not a salutory lesson for us then?
    Labour are the worst offenders. Its significant that as the economy strengthens and labour stand humiliated they want to change their tune.

    • southerner

      Commenting on the (pretend) tribal nature of PMQs by indulging in a bit of tribal politics. Brilliant.

  • southerner

    Anyone with half a brain can see it is simply a contrived attempt at differentiation between 3 left wing parties who have given up on this country and are merely engaging in a 5 year job interview for a cushy position with those they love on the continent or in the City.

  • HenryWood

    ” […] we should endeavour to be proud of the show we put on for the country […]”

    You said it, Ed. It’s all a show.

  • Swiss Bob

    The backstabbing, bandwagon jumping duplicitous clown would not propose anything unless it was to his advantage.

  • BarkingAtTreehuggers

    A proper Parliament for grown-ups is circular.
    Suck it up, God-fearing patriots — you are next.

  • Ron Todd

    It is a show for the little people. The symbolic part of the constitution. Their views on the big issues are so similar they might as well get all the party bosses together round a table and agree what they are going to do without any fuss or shouting.

  • Shinsei1967

    Indeed. PMQs is great political theatre and, seeing as it is only 30 mins a week, there is no need to change its format.

    However you are spot on about the sycophantic questions (aren’t MPs embarrassed at such brown-nosery ?). I’d also add that there are too many constituency specific questions to the PM that are designed solely to get the MPs name in his or her local paper. Unless it has some national resonance we really don’t need to hear about the by-pass issues in Dunny-on-the-Wold.

  • swatnan

    As long as both Dave and Ed insist on making petty Party political points, it’ll be business as usual. PMQs will be as pointless as ever. You don’t get that kind of noonsense in the Select Committees Q&A.

    • Makroon

      No, you get a different kind of nonsense – know-nothing, pompous MPs trying to imitate Paxman and totally missing the right line of questioning.
      Still, who cares if the likes of Hodge, Vaz, Watson, Tyrie and Yeo can get themselves a few minutes on the Parliament channel and a small approving article in the Guardian/Mail ?

      • swatnan

        You get answers; they’re semi judicial.

  • James Strong

    To what extent does PMQs help an ordinary voter come to an informed decision on whether or not the Government of the day is following the right course?
    That is the extent to which it is successful.
    I think there is far too much tolerance of the manipulation of questions and the antics of members.
    One of the reasons MPs should *not* shout, cheer and jeer like football crowds is that they are at work and we are paying them to behave in a workmanlike way.

    • Hello

      It’s theatre. You don’t think that theatre is important in politics? Every week the PM has to be in character and on the ball, I’m sure that’s good practice for international negotiations.

      Then, of course, there is the fact that not everything has to be rationally justified. If you don’t like PMQ’s then you don’t have to watch it, there are literally hours and hours of boring debate every day that you can tune in to. Some people actually like the Punch and Judy show, so maybe they can have just 30 minutes a week? Maybe not every parliamentary debate has to conform to your personal preferences?

      • James Strong

        What a remarkably irrational reply to my comment.
        ‘You don’t think theatre is important in politics?’ How do you draw that inference?
        The PM has to be ‘in character’. What does that mean? When an actor is ‘in character’ he is pretending to be someone he is not.
        Is that what you want from the PM answering for his government’s policies? Or would you like to re-phrase?
        I will phrase it thus: there is a place for dramatic exchanges but unless they based on honesty then the voters are being defrauded.
        ‘If you don’t like PMQ

      • HookesLaw

        Your reply is not of course irrational it is spot on

        • James Strong

          Come on then, Hookey. I think I have shown that it isn’t.Fisk either my first comment or my response. Use reason and argument rather than assertion.
          If you can.

      • Makroon

        And the huge majority are not the slightest bit interested in any of it, and are only dimly aware of the carefully selected one minute soundbite (and five minute “explanation” by some half-wit hack with an agenda), that appears on the 10 o’clock news.

  • statechaos

    To have Punch and Judy politics you require both Punch and Judy, and therefore Ed Miliband has to take his own share of responsibility for what he considers to be the juvenile level of debate.Perhaps he could frame his questions more carefully and he can start by giving up all references to Bullingdon Boys and a ‘Cabinet of Millionaires’.

  • Kitty MLB

    Milipede is such a big girls blouse (whatever that means!)
    Atleast this makes them appear human instead of
    stuffed mannequins, like the type in the EU parliament,
    who look as if they have been touched by Moribund.
    On a more respectful note Mr Squeaker does not
    quite now now to manage them, and is far more lenient to
    Labour MP’s as well as revelling in his own self importance.
    The Lady Speaker who did the job years ago was apparently
    far more successful (apologies, forgotten her name, and I
    cannot just say Betty)

    • Emulous

      “You’ve got to ensure that the holders of an opinion, however unpopular, are allowed to put across their points of view.”

      – Betty Boothroyd

      • Kitty MLB

        Yes indeed Betty Boothroyd and also
        a very important point !d

  • realfish

    ‘…Or else, Miliband is just going through a ‘new politics’ phase like most modern political leaders before him – and nothing will change at all.’

    You seem to have fallen for Miliband’s latest bit of bandwagoning; his latest attempt to muscle in on political debate in another desperate bid to appear relevant (after wringing out his socks and emptying his wellies of flood water, that is).
    It might be worth Miliband reminding himself that it was his MPs who dreadfully mocked and abused Tory cerebral palsy sufferer, Paul Maynard, and went for him like ‘a pack of hyenas’.

    • southerner

      Commenting on the (pretend) tribal nature of PMQs by indulging in a bit of tribal politics. Brilliant.

  • ButcombeMan

    There is another view, the one I hold, that the current Speaker is just not up to the job, is not respected and is incapable of controlling the HoC because of that.

    It does not seem to have occurred to the culprit that he is an important part of the problem.

    His bawling at Gove , with the veins out on his neck, is not becoming. He should also dress properly as Speakers did before.

    • Makroon

      Talking about pots and kettles, the BBC’s take on this is hilarious. Apparently, it’s all because certain MPs (they mean Tories), love a good shouting match.
      It was the BBC that pushed and lobbied for the televising of PMQs, and it is the BBC which cynically edits the exchanges and prepared sound-bites, to make politicians sound as much like oafs as possible (with Saint Ed slightly less oafish, of course).
      Turning PMQs into the latest “reality TV” programme was deliberate, and, like all reality TV, the “stars” are now just desperate to seek attention.

    • First L

      Absolutely. His predecessor was just as terrible and even worse, corrupt, but the sainted Betty Boothroyd was able to shut grown men up with just a look.

  • Hello

    “Or else, Miliband is just going through a ‘new politics’ phase like most modern political leaders before him – and nothing will change at all.”

    It is a problem that there is such a dearth of ideas that politics has turned in on itself like this. To cast yourself as an outsider, point to the spot you wish to occupy and declare it institutionally corrupt; if they’re not careful the politicians are going to force themselves to destroy our political system.

  • Fergus Pickering

    But it’s the Punch nd Judy that is so invigorating. The European Parliament,, for instance, except when our Nige is having an innings, is ballsachingly boring.And the Scottish Parliament too.

    • southerner

      Invigorating only to the naïve who believe there is any difference between the three socialist parties and that these shouting matches represent real divergence of views.

      • Fergus Pickering

        Oh dear. I fear you are serious about politics and may shoot me or blow me up with a bomb. Loosen up, fellow. We were not put on this earth for this.

        • southerner

          Had you been drinking heavily immediately before posting this Fergus old boy? Makes absolutely not the slightest sense.

          • gerontius

            He makes perfect sense.
            Carry on Fergus

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