Can we do better than confrontational parliamentary politics?



The stream of tweets from many of my female Twitterfriends and more over the sexism, misogyny and downright lawbreaking they have to put up with left me quite upset today. Ellie Cosgrave’s testimony here (Trigger warning) left me quite shaken when I read it. She combined it too with a very powerful piece of dance – one of the most powerful I have seen. (Having a bit of a dance background myself, I’ve seen a fair variety of dancing too).

Many of the tweets I’ve seen are inspired by all things International Women’s Day. It’s also reached the stage where us men can no longer claim ignorance about what women have to face. One of the things I’m trying to get my head around is: ‘What is my role in tackling these problems?’ In terms of changing attitudes, what is the wider role of men – whether in terms of those who already want to stand up against the sort of harassment that women have to put up with, or those whose mindsets and attitudes that we wish to change?

For me, one of the biggest places to start is the world of politics and policy – the one that Puffles and I spend too much time in. 

The reason being that this is the world in which the laws of our lands are made in. If those making policy and passing laws are not reflective of the society that is bound by them, we limit our ability to deal with society’s problems. Why? Because no matter how academically or intellectually bright you may be, you will always have a blind spot. Alex Andreou in the New Statesman illustrates this very powerfully. Having spent over a month in-and-out of a traveller’s hostel while house-hunting at university (at a time when my mental health was imploding – and where my old university gave me zero support), I learnt the hard way just how difficult things are for people living in unstable accommodation. It scars you for life. If more politicians had experienced life at the sharp end of housing, would housing have been a much more important policy issue than it has been for the past 20 years?

“What’s this got to do with confrontational politics?”

I come back to Cathy Newman’s point about sexism in politics. It’s all very public schoolboys oxbridge. There’s also this thought-provoking article by Emma Daniel here. You see it in debating societies and the like. Two people proposing a motion, two people speaking against, a bit of Q&A and then a vote. As a model for solving problems or trying to get into the detail, it’s actually a very blunt method of doing things. It can be a bear pit at the best of times. From a bloke’s perspective when you have ‘your tribe’ on your side, throwing virtual hammers and axes at your adversaries – a bit like a football match sometimes. Then you all go to the bar for a drink. Is there something about the alcohol too?

Now, take the experience of Rebecca Meredith who faced the sexist bear pit at the Glasgow University Union, for which they made this statement. Rebecca wrote about her experiences for the Huffington Post here, and was on BBC Radio 4 at the start of Women’s Hour here. Her spoken testimony again is striking. At the same time, this article in the Spectator completely misses the point. It states:

“If Cambridge ‘debaters’ cannot be exposed to robust heckling, that sheltered existence will provide an ideal preparation for translation to the Westminster bubble in which our Oxbridge-led political class remains wholly oblivious to the opinions of the country at large.”

I’d contest that it is the aggressive, abusive heckling that provides the preparation for the Westminster bubble – a bubble that many have a big issue with. We know this from voter turnout alone. People are turned off by it. If they weren’t, they’d engage and vote. Look at the turnouts of just over 100 years ago in Cambridge. 90%+

Behaviour and heckling aside, my question is this:

Is the confrontational style of public and parliamentary politics the best model for discussing issues of public policy?

Look at how Prime Minister’s Questions is treated as a pantomime. Look at how ministers from all parties can get away with not answering questions substantively on the floor of the House of Commons. (Even the Lords too). Look at how parliamentary debates are whipped till the fields of horses are dead. Why is that model flawed? The idea of ‘debates’ along debating society/British parliamentary model (which is notably popular among students from abroad) is that you listen to the merits of what’s being put forward by each speaker. You then draw your own conclusions and vote accordingly. With the whipped vote – and all votes on key pieces of legislation such as second reading of bills are whipped – MPs and peers vote the way they are told to – unless they have read up and feel particularly strongly about the issue. That being the case, what is the point of sitting through a seven hour ‘debate’ in Parliament when the outcome is so predictable?

Do MPs and peers know what they are voting on? Much of the time they don’t. Several MPs past and present have told me to my face. So…what then is the purpose of such ‘debates’ other than to try and catch the minister or someone else off guard?

Much of the time it can be to secure a public commitment that ministers cannot renege on later. Look at the furore around the recent NHS competition regulations. One of the arguments that forced the U-turn was that politicians and campaigners claimed that they went against a series of commitments ministers made to Parliament on the floors of both houses. One of the conventions of Parliament is that a ministerial commitment made on the floor of either house is a commitment made in stone. You deliver on it. But in terms of detailed discussions and exchanges, the model simply does not work.

“But Pooffles, then politics will become boring!”

You mean it isn’t already for vast swathes of the country? Line-to-take-tennis, restrictions on who can speak in public and who cannot. Look at the repeat suspects that are “Approved for BBC Question Time”. Why don’t we see a more diverse range of politicians on that programme? Why is it the same commentators on both sides that appear time and again? Same stuff, different venue.

I’ve seen first hand what it’s like when politicians engage with the general public to discuss issues in detail and in depth. Most recently for me in Cambridge, Natalie Bennett did this with the Greens, and Jack Dromey, Catherine McKinnell and Huw Irranca-Davies did this for Labour. I’d be interested in attending similar events with local Lib Dems and Tories if they are running them. The reason why they worked for me was because the politicians were there in listening mode. More importantly, local people were able to put their testimony to them directly. The more repeated the points made by different people in terms of their experiences, the more powerful a message was sent to politicians.

What we do not have are public parliamentary forums where issues can be examined in detail in perhaps a more collegiate manner. Yes, we have select committees where MPs and peers can throw follow-up questions and, when on top form can really skewer witnesses with something to hide. But what we don’t have is a forum where ‘the issue’ is in the witness stand and where the the issue is dissected by various people on the panel. For example on apprenticeships, I would be interested in seeing Caroline Lucas of the Greens, Julian Huppert of the Lib Dems, Robert Halfon of the Conservatives and Stella Creasy of Labour unpicking all of the issues around apprenticeships, moderated by any of the MPs that have the role of chairing public bill committees. (This role for the purposes of scrutinising legislation is, by convention is independent of party politics). No party-political point-scoring, simply focussing on the issue and the policy. Play the policy, not the politician or the party.

“Don’t we have All Party Political Groups for that?”

No. (See the register for what our MPs are interested in by group). The reason being that they are not fully funded by Parliament. Take one I’m interested in – the All Party Parliamentary Group on Cycling. Any group that provides the secretariat for such groups can have a significant amount of influence over individual MPs or even the entire group. It’s been rumbling along for a few years now, but every so often it will hit the front pages – as it did a couple of months ago.

If Parliament chose to take the resourcing of APPGs in house (which I think they should do simply on grounds of propriety), then they could become forums for those more detailed in-depth discussions. As some APPGs do, they would be able to issue their own reports, and invite other parties to take part in their discussions too – live broadcasting them at the same time. From a public policy perspective, this would allow for a more forensic detailed examination of public policy in a less confrontational environment.

I can’t help but think that a few more people would be more willing to engage with that sort of forum than one where MPs can blank their constituents because they happen to have different political views to them. This is one of the big flaws of first past the post: Your MP has a constitutional duty to represent everyone in the constituency irrespective of their political views. But would you feel comfortable approaching your MP if s/he espoused views that you took to be sexist, racist, homophobic or discriminatory against you because of something outside of your control? (Just look back to the equal marriage second reading debate).

That’s not to say there’s no place for confrontational politics whatsoever. It’s perfectly possible to slam-dunk someone without resorting to abuse. Stella Creasy from 30:00 in provides a master class on just how to do this. (Stella, have you got a permanent online copy I can link to on your website?)

Yes, I want to see more diversity in politics. Yes, I want to see more passion – not faux outrage. Yes, I want to see more informed debate and discussion. No, I don’t want things to be controlled and micromanaged by party machinery. No, I don’t want the whips to run the show on behalf of their political masters.

Anyway, Question Time’s about to start so I’ll leave it here & wait for the pantomime to commence.


2 thoughts on “Can we do better than confrontational parliamentary politics?

  1. Question Time is part of the theatre. It’s sport, not politics. But that’s the price you pay for including everyone in politics. Most people aren’t bright enough or well-educated enough to contribute anything meaningful to politics, so issues are turned into games at which you must score points.

    It’s all very well harking back to a hundred years ago. But politics a hundred years ago was utterly dominated by public school and Oxbridge.(see the 1913 cabinet here: The less well-educated were kept out, and the standard of debate was consequently higher.

    That opens up two possibilities: Either keep the under-educated out of politics, or improve the general standard of education. The first is easy, the second is difficult.

  2. Interesting piece but I felt that you never defined what you meant by confrontational. There is no doubt that there is huge sexism and bad behaviour in the present arrangements of Parliament as well as evidence that Prime Minister’s Questions etc do not generate public respect for politicians.
    Like many critics of Parliamentary practice, you ended up with too many things to change immediately without a real sense of priorities and sequence. This invites Hoover’s response and the argument that this is a price we have to pay etc

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