Nothing could better illustrate the reasons behind British public’s disengagement with politics, and their disdain for politicians, than the proceedings that took place in the House of Commons on December 18th, 2013. MPs of the two big parties in the chamber should be in a state of perennial embarrassment when they witness their leaders repeatedly strike each other with ad hominem blows emanating from selfish party politics, personal animus and a desire to score cheap points. But today’s exchanges during Prime Minister’s Question Time plummeted to a new low in the squalid pit of farce and foolishness. Hugo Rifkind wittily conveyed the scene of raucous guffawing, baiting and jeering when he tweeted:
Now this behaviour is not uncommon, in fact it is what passes for parliamentary rectitude these days. We have ridiculed it countless times and castigate the members for their puerile antics. Eruptions of boorish heckling begin the nanosecond after an MP falters momentarily while delivering a question or comment. The sequence is reminiscent of that particular brand of internet troll who has nothing original or worthwhile to contribute, but always pounces on another forum member’s spelling error, labelling them a ‘dumbass’, while ignoring the content of what is expressed and its merits. It is quite astonishing that these bullies are elected representatives of the world’s seventh largest economy. It would be funny if it wasn’t for the depressing reality that these infantile performances are not isolated, and have become so routinized as to now be accepted practice in the Commons. The Tory and Labour party now have designated provocateurs sitting on the steps opposite their political foes, with the sole duty of antagonising the opposing front benches in order to affect a slip up, or disconcert whichever member is speaking. Be it the Prime Minister or the oft-targeted Ed Balls, a consummate heckler in his own right. Now back benchers have always been vocal antagonists, fomenting disquiet in the chamber, but when party leaders are actually sanctioning the crude tactics of these step-dwelling wind up merchants, they are essentially holding the whole process of parliamentary politics in contempt and laying a big, brown stinky one on the very foundation stone of democracy. When elected representatives cannot even make their voices heard over the jeers, and buffoonish members attempt to obstruct debate and the opposition’s right to scrutinise and challenge the incumbent government, then the whole democratic process is soiled at its very basic root. Over 250,000 Britons tune in to PMQs every week (this is lunch time in the middle of the week). It’s good material for comedians and satirists, but the British public are not amused. When they see the House of Commons erupting into a den of jackals ripping each other to shreds, and the despatch box converted into a pulpit for cheap political potshots it evokes nothing but anger and despair.
between the Prime Minister and Ed Miliband was typical, and just about like any other. Cameron, as he often does, won the battle of (dim)wits, but as always it is a battle of which the spoils are few and worthless. Both leaders reel off cherry-picked statistics to buttress their political agenda. Miliband hops from issue to issue, desperately scrambling for something with which to wipe away the smugness of the Tory front bench. While Cameron invariably evades the specific question asked and falls back on his usual refrain regarding the economy (‘it’s growing’), the deficit (‘it’s falling’) and unemployment (‘a million more jobs’) before sounding off with a personal jab at ‘Red Ed’s’ shortcomings as a leader, and deriding the ‘nightmare’ shadow chancellor. We see the same play over and over. But Wednesday’s shouting match eclipsed previous embarrassments and descended into a pointless back and forth tirade over each party’s unrealised predictions regarding the economy. Miliband denounced Osborne’s previous forecast of eliminating the deficit by 2015, which the chancellor has admitted will now not be achieved until 2018. While Cameron took swipes at Labour’s ominous warnings of one million job losses and triple-dip recession. The “you got more things wrong than me!” “No! You got more things wrong than me!” routine looked like two schoolboys arguing over whose dad could beat up whose. This is not what Prime Minister’s questions is for, it is not how the leaders of the two largest parties should behave, and it is certainly not a sequence to which the electorate should be subjected. The Commons, during this thirty minute exercise, is supposed to be a forum where the government is questioned, challenged and made to answer for its time in office thus far. It is not a place for petty squabbles and playing the blame game to score trifling political victories.
The second humiliation of the day for British politics, and especially the Tories, came during the food banks debate. This debate has been long overdue following the huge explosion in the number of citizens – of the seventh richest country in the world – using food banks and soup kitchens to subsist. Over 500,000 people in the UK now rely on the generosity of strangers, thanks in no small part to the stringent policies and welfare cuts of the coalition government, which are forcing the poor and working poor into further poverty and privation. You would think the proliferation in food banks, at a rate not seen since the war, would be a cause for concern for the government, and that the Tory MPs would wish to participate in a dialogue over how to better assist those who are dependent on food banks for sustenance. But clearly, the right side of the chamber does not elicit much empathy and solicitude for these poor souls who are bearing the brunt of austerity. The discrepancy in attendance, for the debate, between Conservatives and Labour was stark; there must have been fewer than 30 Tories and Lib Dems present for the majority, while Labour enjoyed an admirable sized cohort. The shameful tableau was compounded when IDS scuttled out of the debate halfway through along with the DEFRA minister, leaving only the Minister for Volunteering to provide responses or a defense to the myriad assaults Labour mustered against such a lamentable situation existing on such a scale in British society. It appeared the Department for Work and Pensions Secretary had grown tired of squirming in his seat, and consequently decided to leave his conscience on the front bench, as Labour MP after Labour MP read out letters from their constituents who had been forced to endure the humiliation of resorting to food banks in order to feed themselves and their children. The most damning indictment of Tory policy – and the note on which I will end this blog entry – came when an MP related how a constituent wrote to her describing an occasion whereby her children asked the food bank for a box of cereal and a portion of drinking chocolate “as a treat”. It’s a shame more Parliamentary party members could not bother to be present for that poignant, and much needed, reality check.