Comment: Don't give up on ending Punch and Judy politics

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University
Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University

By Dr Matthew Ashton

There's been a lot of talk recently about how people are fed up with politics. Well that's not strictly true; virtually all the academic research shows that people are more interested in politics than ever before. It's just that they're sick to the back teeth of traditional forms of political activity - eg joining political parties, voting and politicians themselves.

Politicians are often keen to blame the media for this trend; accusing them of focusing on the negative, making the British public cynical and apathetic. While there might be some truth in this, it's still dodging the real issue. If you look at the evidence of the last two decades, it's not the media creating a huge debt crisis, selling off the nations gold reserves for a song, or getting us involved in ill-advised foreign wars. When I walk home at night and worry about getting mugged, it's not because the media are cutting back on police funding.

The obvious answer is for politicians to raise their game: keep their manifesto promises, not fiddle their expenses, and to properly answer questions when asked. However unfortunately, none of those are likely to happen anytime soon.


The other rather radical alternative is exiting politics entirely – whether by resignation or even death. Nothing transforms a politician from being a second-rate mediocrity into a towering political colossus faster than their unexpected exit from Westminster. Hypocritical rivals who had always hated their guts will come out on mass and say that secretly they'd always admired them and that they will fill a space which is impossible to fill. Likewise the public and media will start to remember their good points. Nothing feeds nostalgia like the knowledge that whatever your feeling nostalgic for won't be coming back. However as the entirety of parliament suddenly dropping dead is, thankfully, unlikely, we return to the question of how else politicians can win back the public's respect.

Possibly the easiest and most cost-effective solution would be an end to Punch and Judy politics. Any politician who genuinely wants to know why the great British public hold their profession in such low regard only needs to watch prime minister's question time every Wednesday. If they can't even show each other any respect, why should anyone else?

They always defend this by arguing that their behaviour at PMQs is actually a sign of 'healthy and robust debate'. Clearly at some point someone has redefined 'robust debate' to mean 'acting like a gang of 14-year-olds' without telling us. It's essentially the equivalent of people who think it perfectly ok to be as rude as humanly possible on the basis that they're "just telling it like it is'. Possibly someone should tell MPs that you can have healthy debate without sneering, jeering, name-calling and sycophancy.

Politicians sometimes claim that it was always like this. I've consulted the parliamentary record, Hansard, and this simply isn't true. It's only since the arrival of TV cameras in the late 80s that things have become quite this bad. Televising parliament was done with the hope of making it more transparent and open. Instead it seems to reduced one the oldest legislatures in the world to the level of a sixth-form debating society.

The other excuse politicians use is that the standard of debate is much higher outside of PMQs. Speaking as someone who's watched a lot of the parliament channel I honestly doubt this. It mostly seems to consist of MPs giving uninspiring speeches to a few bored looking colleagues lounging around a 90% empty chamber. Unless of course politicians think it's a conspiracy on the part of the BBC to try and bore the nation to death.

Ultimately I want a politician who behaves the same way regardless of whether a TV camera is pointing at them or not. One who is willing to engage in reasoned and articulate debate over partisan rhetoric. Maybe if they did, people would respect them more.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

 

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