News and Comment

Reengagement: popping the question

Tuesday 25 February 2014

Here’s a starter for 10. What according to three senior political figures is characterised by “yobbery”, “detracts from the reputation of politics”, and is “totally off-putting”? Answer: Prime Minister’s Questions.

That these criticisms of British politics’ most prominent exemplar come from The Speaker of the House, the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Prime Minister respectively, gives an indication as to the extent which their image problem concerns politicians. And, in what must go down as a rare moment of national consensus, the public seem to agree. In a recent Hansard survey only 12% of us said we felt PMQs makes us proud of Parliament.

So then, what to do? Well in the short term there seems to be some political will forming around the idea of changing PMQs to something less adversarial and less archaic. Or in the nigh-on un-improvable words of John Bercow, something with less “public school twittishness”. It would however seem foolhardy for politicians to fixate on the idea that fixing PMQs will in and of itself solve the problem of public disenchantment, disengagement and in some cases, public disgust with politics.

Research has shown one of the most entrenched barriers to greater public engagement in politics is a lack of confidence or trust in the political system. As the most visible manifestation of this system it is perhaps unsurprising that PMQs is thus held in low regard. However, efforts to improve its perception by clamping down on pettiness and party political point scoring without tackling these more deeply-held reservations risk doing little more than window dressing.

It was clear from the lively Q and A at an Unlock Democracy event last night that there is appetite for more substantive changes than simply reducing the amount of heckling in the Chamber. The subject up for discussion was a big one, “Reengaging people with parliament”, with MP Angela Eagle present to offer her views.

There are, it seems, a couple of assumptions implicit in this question which warrant further consideration.

The first, that people are disengaged with parliament, is hard to dispute. Since the 1960s General Election turnout has been falling, and thus the representative connection and mandate of MPs in the Commons has diminished.

The second however – that it is the responsibility of individuals to engage with Parliament, as opposed to the responsibility of Parliament to engage its people – holds less water . This point could be seen as mere pedantry, but it does bear thinking about in terms of how the political establishment goes about reconnecting with a dubious populace.

Much of the work we do at OPM is around engaging and including people in decision-making processes. To this end we know how difficult it can be to reach groups that have hitherto either been excluded or chosen to exclude themselves from engaging with politics in general and Parliament in particular.  Given this, the notion that those currently disengaged can be brought back into the fold solely by changing what happens inside the Chambers seems flawed. As Hansard themselves have acknowledged: “What exists is demonstrably insufficient to engage the public; social media and changing attitudes mean that new methods of engagement are not optional extras but core parts of a public engagement strategy.”

And there is some cause to be hopeful on this count, with progress finally being made on e-petitions. Since they were reintroduced by DirectGov in 2011 e-petitions have been much maligned in practice with the chief criticism remaining that few of those collecting over 100,000 signatures are ever debated in the Commons as promised. Yet the premise of enabling the population to effect discussions which take place in the Chamber seems a sound one, and one hopes that plans afoot to revise the e-petition system build on this ideal.

What was perhaps most pointed at yesterday’s event was the stark recognition from all sides of the need for culture change among MPs.  Again this is an area in which OPM has some experience, particularly around integrating health and social care, and again it is something that we know is much easier said than done. The public is quite rightly cynical about political rhetoric that seems to lack any tangible outcomes. If it is to be taken seriously, culture change will have to be seen as well as talked about and that must surely involve sustaining citizen engagement over the long-term rather than just piquing it at election time. Behaving less childishly during PMQs could be a start in this. But hand-wringing about low public engagement at the same time that many elected representatives themselves fail to turn out for debates and votes in Parliament is less likely to have the desired effect.