End the Punch-and-Judy politics

A less confrontational, more thoughtful era of politics has to start with David Cameron.

In British politics, Punch and Judy are for ever in and out of favour. David Cameron, as a new leader of the Conservative Party, promised an end to Punch-and-Judy-style debating, but then couldn't resist a bit of it. Blair was the same.

I guess even a saint, standing in front of everyone in the playground as they all shout "You're rubbish!", would respond eventually.

So I was pleased to see a tweet on today's PMQs from the Times's columnist David Aaronovitch today which said:

Rather enjoying the lobby's disappointment at PMQs not being a pointless slanging match.

Contrast that with a blog from Iain Martin at the Wall Street Journal, who claims that without the "Punch and Judy of politics" PMQs are "boring".

I, however, believe there is a way of getting this right.

In my fantasy world, David Cameron arrives as PM and sends out messages to all members of government saying that parliament is going to be totally different from now on.

It is no longer the intention to win "points" according to the Press Gallery's rules at Prime Minister's Questions. Instead, even if his tongue is bleeding from biting it, Cameron will resist the baiting and treat every questioner with the respect that his or her constituents deserve.

Cameron also communicates to all backbenchers, "No cheering and no jeering. We are in a serious and sober time in politics."

Just before the election, I found myself in a dubious situation at the arch Tory Carlton Club. The guest of honour was Margaret Thatcher. The person sitting next to me, who does not mix in typical Tory circles, asked me why all these rather bumptious men at the dinner kept shouting in über-posh voices: "Har, har, har!" I had to explain that they were saying, "Hear, hear."

If someone tuned in to PMQs without being a regular, they would ask similar questions.

To the wits of parliament, a Punch-and-Judy ban would be sheer torture. Could someone like William Hague or Michael Gove make it through their departmental questions without a witty putdown?

I would much rather see a parliament where someone is lauded for strong economic policies than one where that same person is sanctified for coming up with a "Stalin to Mr Bean" pay-off line.

Cameron himself would have to resist his weekly pre-rehearsed soundbites, criticising Ed Milliband's pre-rehearsed soundbites. Would someone like Ed Balls become uncomfortable and exposed in a debating scenario where the questions are searching but from which the invective is absent?

When a political reporter gives a politician points out of ten for PMQs, it is often based entirely on how well the MP bitch-slapped his or her opponent, not on the substance of the issue.

But if respect for politicians has never been lower and we have been doing PMQs the same way for years, isn't it time to try something different?

Come on, Cameron, you can change this. Nobody else can. It starts with you.

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.