Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Parliament, know thyself

I have to watch a lot of live coverage of Parliament in my job. This is not always as dull as it sounds, but one thing it does show is the huge difference between what I suspect is the majority of the public's view of the Commons and what's actually going on there.

Except where there's some important statement and/or debate like this week's tuition fees version, most people's exposure to the workings of the Commons is limited to the chimps' tea party that is PMQs. Commons fills up for this worthless exercise in mud slinging, yelling, paper waving, self-serving questions planted by the Government side, and food throwing, I shouldn't wonder, if they were allowed.

The Speaker, when calling for order, frequently reminds members that the public hate the barracking, cat-calling and general childishness, but it never seems to make any difference. We've had frequent calls for a more grown-up approach, with a less 'yah-boo-sucks' approach to the House, particularly after Labour leader John Smith died, and after the Dunblane massacre, when the best of the House was evident. But it always quickly degenerates when PMQs comes round.

And it's a shame, because if you watch it for any length of time, you'll see that the Commons is a much harder working and more collaborative place than many people think. Any debate which only has around 30 members sitting there will inevitably be conducted in a more dignified manner because those MPs present will be the ones who genuinely care about what's being debated, and often those who sit on Select Committees working with members across the political divide.

Frankly, there's a case for switching the cameras off only during PMQs (I recognise of course that it's been like this since long before the cameras came in, but at least they wouldn't be projecting that to the world then), but it's another example of our sound-bite culture that the few bickering exchanges during PMQs are those best suited to being put into 30 second clips for news bulletins and presented to the viewing public as 'today's events in the Commons'.

It's actually half an hour of the (visible) worst of our political system, the Commons showing her ugliest face to a disappointed electorate in a bizarrely stubborn, almost proud manner. I can't believe PMQs has ever actually achieved anything. Time for a change.

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