A modest suggestion for Labour’s new leader
Dear Mr Miliband,
Like, I’m pretty sure, thousands of other members and supporters of the Labour party, I was immensely heartened and impressed by your conference speech on Tuesday. It was a real tour de force; your commitment and radicalism shone through it. Many of us have been waiting far too long to hear some of the things you said. Bravo!
You mentioned that you had been receiving a good deal of largely unsolicited advice. Well, here’s one more unsolicited but modest suggestion. There are lots of policy issues which we could all press on you (and I almost certainly shall in due course), but there’s one particular thing that deserves urgent attention, before parliament meets again. It’s about your pledge to change politics — and specifically about Prime Minister’s Questions.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of PMQs as the forum in which the people of Britain will get to know you, and to judge you. It’s also impossible to overstate the disgust that thousands of us have been experiencing, week by ghastly week, at the puerile punch-and-judy punch-up that PMQs have sunk to in recent years — not only at the childish exchanges of insults between the two principals but also at the meaningless baying from the back benches. Not many people are such political nerds, or have so much spare time on a weekday, that they can watch each week’s PMQ’s from start to finish (as I generally do), but tens of thousands see the clips on their television news and current affairs programmes, and the clips, seen and heard in isolation from their context, are often even more dreadful than the ritual corrida as a whole.
You appealed for a grown-up debate on the real issues facing us. There can be no better place to start it than PMQs. Cameron will of course try to patronise, provoke and rile you, egged on by the coalition pack. What a brilliant impression you will make if your questions are courteous requests for information that you genuinely want to have, and if your reactions to petty point-scoring are calm and polite! You might make it a rule never to ask a question to which you already know the answer: it’s an opportunity to seek information about government policy and practice, not for laying traps. By all means express withering scorn for Cameron’s taunts and condescension, remind him that he’s there to provide information and not to score points, but then repeat your courteous request for the information you perfectly reasonably seek. You might tell him that if you can treat him with the respect due to the prime minister of our country, the least he can do is treat you with the respect due to the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Shame him, don’t score off him.
Before your first PMQs, you will need to tell the parliamentary Labour party in a private session that you are determined to change PMQs into an occasion that will win public respect instead of scorn, and that to achieve this you will need the cooperation of your back-benchers: no more baying and howling, no more loud false laughter, no more jeering. A few quiet ‘Hear, Hears’ to salute your best points should be quite enough. A few louder ‘Hear, Hears’ to greet those of your questions in which you actually welcome aspects of government policy, and pay suitable compliments to those ministers doing the right things, will be even better. How civilised it will be if you can refrain from making lengthy speeches to introduce each question — and, if I might discreetly say so, we have by now firmly grasped the point about how much you love your brother. Enough said.
The impression you’ll be able to make by this dramatic change of style should be immediate and hugely favourable. Of course your speeches and the way you handle radio and television interviews will be important too — and you have shown in your interview on the Andrew Marr Show last Sunday that you have real flair in that tricky department. But PMQs may prove to be the most important litmus test of all. It will require almost superhuman self-control not to bite back in response to intolerable provocation, not only from the prime minister but also from the supporting primates beside and behind him. If you can bring yourself to treat them as humans, and grown-up humans too, perhaps they will start to behave like grown-up humans. Even if they don’t, the effort will add hugely to your stature. I’m sure you will bring it off superbly.
Best wishes: you’ve made a cracking start, if I might respectfully says so — all you have to do now is keep it up.
PS: Yes, I cast both my first preferences for you — and your conference speech vindicated my judgement in spades.