PMQs draws a bit of attention to parliament's work, which must count for something. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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Face it, PMQs is better viewing than committees where the narcoleptic fear to tread

In defence of Westminster's weekly Punch and Judy session.

Prime Minister’s Question time is – like the bongs of Big Ben and the inevitability that somewhere on the internet, someone is tweeting something discouraging at the Prime Ministerial Twitter feed – an oasis of certainty in an uncertain world. It is the same each week, and subject only to modest variations: Miliband attacks, Dave parries, a couple of backbenchers ask about Equitable Life, all the commentators call it for their leader of choice, rinse-and-repeat-next-Wednesday.

PMQs is something that splits opinion. On the one hand, some argue that they like the rough-and-tumble, the atavistic shouting and heckling. Okay, so it’s not exactly Socratic dialectic, but who hasn’t responded to a well-made point with the retort “YOUR MUM” at some stage in their life and found it hilarious? PMQs operates on this level and, being rather puerile myself, I can see why people love it and, also, love to complain about it. We’re British, dammit, it’s what we do. Who doesn’t watch Celebrity The Only Way is Chelsea Get Me out of Here? and claim that we’re doing so ironically, rather than because we enjoy watching Z-listers half-heartedly trying to sleep with each other?

On the other hand, those in favour of change might reasonably argue that this analogy doesn’t exactly convey “the noble derring-do of brave pilots in the cockpit of our nation,” which is borne out by recent Hansard Society research (only 12 per cent agreed that it made them proud of parliament) in a report which suggested ways in which the weekly bun-fight could be reformed to make it more modern and relevant to the viewers at home. The recommendations are supported by a Mumsnet petition that currently has around 50,000 signatures, which means that the proposals have a theoretical chance of being debated in the Commons on a backbench business motion, if the number of signatories reaches 100,000.

For all that I could easily never watch another repeat of Davezilla vs Milra, I’m not sure that the answer that the Hansard Society has come up with to reform PMQs is sound. It argues: “The format should be varied to facilitate a more discursive approach, pursuing genuine debate on just a few topical areas as well as more rapid-fire Q&As.”

Well, yes. That would be nice. But the thing is that this happens, right now, every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and on Wednesday too, before PMQs kicks off.

The Hansard Society also want to reduce the number of “open questions” and have a “renewed emphasis on closed, subject-specific questions from backbenchers.” But is this particularly necessary on the basis that subject-specific questions are already undertaken in departmental question time, alongside the more open-style, topical questions?

There’s an argument in favour of an open-question style topical debate in PMQs if, for no other reason, than a question tabled three sitting days before might no longer be relevant come the following Wednesday. Sure, you could make this case for departmental questions too, but if PMQs is about holding the executive to account rather than policy specifics, which might require the issue in question to be looked into in some detail, then there’s something to be said for allowing backbenchers a degree of spontaneity.

Furthermore, there’s plenty of interesting and worthwhile stuff that goes on in parliament, and always has, which requires cross-party working and genuine debate. Take former Culture Secretary Maria Miller the other week: there she was, at some ungodly hour of night, speaking out passionately against “revenge porn” in an adjournment debate. Or the work of the various select committees – particularly, it might be noted, the public accounts committee whose chair, the rather pugnacious Margaret Hodge, appears to be approaching Institutional Treasure status.

And do large numbers of people watch the non-PMQ aspects of parliament, where collegiate working and rational debate rule the day?

Do they buffalo.

I suppose the real question is, regardless of the merits of change, would these reforms work? I’m not altogether sure they would, otherwise we’d all be tuning in to watch Westminster Hall debates on fracking or potholes in Penge. While everyone claims to despise PMQs, it has to be true that it is widely watched and, at some level, popular. Although the Beeb gamely broadcasts from Statutory Instrument Committees where the narcoleptic fear to tread as well as the weekly shout-athon, commercial channels like Sky News wouldn’t do so unless there was something in it for them.

In short, PMQs might not represent everything that goes on in parliament but, in its current form, it does draw a bit of attention – albeit by accident via the more entertaining spectacle of the bawling – to some of its work. And something has to be better than nothing.

As for me, I’ll do the usual and put some soothing St Leonard of Cohen on the headphones, and crack on with the correspondence. And if people ask me what I thought about the performance afterwards, I just bluff it out with an airy, “Well, Miliband started strong but seemed to lose his mojo and I thought Dennis Skinner’s gag about posh boys on the Tory benches was hilarious.”

It’s not failed me yet.


Sadie Smith has been a bag-carrier in parliament for 13 years

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Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.