Do we really hate MPs getting rowdy?

 
Clockwise from top left: David Cameron, John Bercow, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, George Osborne.

Voters are often deployed as foot-soldiers in Speaker John Bercow's uphill battle against raucousness at Prime Minister's Questions. But is he right to believe we disapprove so strongly?

"It is not acceptable to shout down either the prime minister or the leader of the opposition. The public have a very low opinion of that kind of behaviour."

That was one attempt to quell the noise in the most recent 30-minute question session, known in Westminster as PMQs, when David Cameron takes questions from the opposition leader and other MPs.

But as it turned out, the Speaker's put-down of one badly behaved MP provided the most watched video clip of the session on the BBC website.

So could it be that the public does rather enjoy a bit of verbal aggro after all?

'Deafening'

Unfortunately there appears to have been no rigorous polling on the subject, so we have had to to rely on anecdotal evidence - and that seems to support both sides of the argument.

Bercow's crowd-control tactics

Since becoming Speaker, John Bercow has used the following phrases:

  • "Too much noise" - 53 times
  • "The House must come to order" - 46 times
  • "Calm yourself" - 13 times
  • "You are supposed to be a statesman" (or similar) - 11 times
  • "The public loathe/detest/despise it" (or similar) - six times
  • "It makes a very bad impression on the public" (or similar) - four times
  • "Get a grip" - twice
  • "Should be heard in respectful quiet" - once
  • "Take a pill if necessary, but keep calm. Take up yoga" - once

A spokesman for the Speaker - the referee who controls the debates and other proceedings in the Commons - says members of the public send "two or three letters every week" to Mr Bercow complaining about MPs' conduct at prime minister's questions.

"The noise in the chamber is actually quite deafening," he says.

"Occasionally there have been school groups visiting who have been taken aback." Some of the teachers "thought it wasn't a great example for their pupils", he adds.

The spokesman recalls numerous public question sessions with the Speaker being dominated by criticism of bad behaviour in the chamber.

"They don't think it's very good reflection of the House. What they don't understand is that it's not like that all the time.

"They don't see all the line-by-line scrutiny, they don't see the calmer, more cerebral stuff."

Director of polling firm ICM Martin Boon also thinks that voters are "not impressed" by MPs seeking "petty party political advantage" at PMQs.

"We've conducted many political focus groups over the years, and a constant theme has always been a disappointment with politicians who engage in yah-boo politics," he says.

'Pouring blood'

The details of such discussions are kept under wraps, but he concludes - in general terms - that focus groups would rather MPs "debated the issues sensibly" than behave like children.

Some MPs are attuned to different signals from voters. TV ratings soar for PMQs, they note.

Professional wrestlers David Cameron was surprised by Ed Miliband's new line of attack

Labour MP Stephen Pound describes the Speaker's assessment of the public's attitude towards ill-tempered Commons clashes as "absolute rubbish".

"They love it. They watch prime minister's questions because it is the World Wrestling Federation without the subtlety.

"If there were blood pouring down the aisle they'd be even happier."

In addition to its entertainment value, the wall of sound that frontbenchers must clamber over to be heard serves a useful constitutional purpose too, Mr Pound argues, enabling backbench MPs to weed out weak leaders.

"Some leaders don't recover" from the reputational damage inflicted upon them at PMQs, he notes, citing John Major and Gordon Brown as evidence.

As further proof of the extent of public interest in the "pressure cooker" environment of PMQs, he adds that MPs' allocation of tickets to watch the event are always "hugely over-subscribed".

'Overwhelmingly contradictory'

"No-one has ever contacted me saying they love hearing Demosthenian arguments in the Commons - they say: 'I love it when [veteran Labour MP] Dennis Skinner is rude.'"

The Conservatives' Jacob Rees-Mogg also disagrees with Mr Bercow.

A compilation of some of the Speaker's attempts to get MPs to be quieter

"I'm a great fan of the Speaker - he's a very good Speaker, and stands up for backbenchers," he says. "But I don't think he's right on this point.

"I think the electorate expects people to feel strongly about the issues that affect their lives very greatly."

Director of think tank the Hansard Society Dr Ruth Fox has an explanation for these contrasting conclusions: public opinion is "overwhelmingly contradictory" on the subject.

"On the one hand people like the theatre of PMQs. On the other, they really don't like the fact that they perceive MPs not to be taking the issues seriously," she says.

Dr Fox's latest research shows a marked increase in the proportion of people who agree with the propositions that Parliament "holds government to account" and "debates and makes decisions about issues that matter to me".

Punch and Judy

But she suspects this is in spite of raucousness in the Commons chamber rather than because of it.

In fact, she attributes the change to the increased profile and effectiveness of select committees in recent years - where the atmosphere of forensic investigation is radically different from the crucible of the Commons.

"One of the dangers for MPs," she warns, "is that because of the theatrical element [of Commons debate], they think the public are laughing with them but all too often the public are laughing at them."

If the public is conflicted on the subject, it's fair to say that some notable politicians - over the passage of time - have been too.

Prime Minister David Cameron promised, during his 2005 campaign to become Tory leader, to bring an end to "Punch and Judy politics".

But in 2011 he admitted: "I will absolutely hold up my hand... and say you're quite right, this is a promise I have not been able to deliver - I 'fess up to you if you like."

He's not the only one to have altered his stance.

Mr Pound remembers a former political rival who was "exceptionally badly behaved" during the 1997-2001 Parliament.

He was described by contemporary sketchwriters as "one of the Tories' most notorious hooligans", as "the Tories' very own rottweiler", and accused by reporters of "bellowing" at Labour MPs on several occasions.

In 2001, he was forced by Speaker Michael Martin to withdraw the "unparliamentary" epithet "con man!", which he had directed towards the then Chancellor Gordon Brown.

His name? John Bercow.

At that time, the Speaker conceded in 2010, his behaviour had been "spectacularly bad. Not just bad, but bad on an industrial scale."

 

Comments

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  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 39.

    They behave like a bunch of bickering schoolchildren.

    Shouting when others are talking, laughing and giggling amongst themselves, throwing snide comments across the table, generally being ignorant of what is being said or asleep and just seemingly in there for the money.

    How can they expect people to behave responsibly when this is the vision you get from them.

    And they want RESPECT?

  • Comment number 38.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 37.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 36.

    perhaps MPs wouldn't be so rowdy at PMQs if prime ministers actually answered the questions they were asked!
    this seemingly standard practice of 'avoiding the issue' is definitely far more 'offensive' than rowdiness_ certainly to this 'member of the public' _ and David Cameron is the worst offender_ by far!

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 35.

    Lying, scheming, duplicitous, contemptible, arrogant, pathetic.

    Just a few thoughts that come to mind when the word politician is mentioned. I detest the whole darn lot of them - a plague on all their houses

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 34.

    The tribal nature of the parties is nothing short of pathetic!

    Having watched PMQ regularly, a certain E.Balls appears to be the worst type of yah-boo politician who shouts down others, but when he speaks (and stutters) subsequently plays the "I'm being bullied" card.

    The HofCommons meant for freedom of speech. Hardly the case when those opposite the MP trying to speak gets shouted down

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 33.

    The MPs squabbling is pathetic.

    Unfortunately these shouting matches sometimes also afflict Radio 4's Today programme.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 32.

    The positive thing is that we get to see the faces behind the masks. The person who appears in front of the TV camera, is very often different to the howling and giggling misfit we see in the House of Commons. And then we wonder why this country is in a mess!

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 31.

    The most irritating thing is Andrew Lansley doing his impression of Paul Merton just behind the PM.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 30.

    It is always a pleasure to see Dennis Skinner in action telling it how it really is, so more of that would be welcome rather that the braying Tories who imagine that this is how they behave in their clubs and elite schools. Flashman and Gideon encourage this type of behaviour by their whole demeanour thereby demonstrating how much they are out of touch with the rest of the country

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 29.

    Huhne.
    Why haven't we had a HYS about this liar who has managed to keep his job for 5 years @65k per year plus his pension for the same time interval after the initial accusation he had perverted the course of justice. He lied 5 years ago and now he has come clean. It makes me so angry he will get away with not having to repay what he took for being an MP over that time.

  • rate this
    +64

    Comment number 28.

    I used to respect politicians but now hold them in utter contempt and their behaviour, in or out of the House of Commons, just reinforces my opinion of them

  • rate this
    -19

    Comment number 27.

    I really don't know what Sally's husband is on about?!

    The only reason that I watch PMQs is for the arguing and shouting, terrifically entertaining!

    Here here!

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 26.

    To All MP's
    Its the petty point scoring and pathetic little jibes that's annoys me. Stick to the facts, argue with passion but not like a 2 year old.
    After all you are all grown adults!

  • rate this
    +89

    Comment number 25.

    If people behaved like this in any other line of work they would be swiftly disciplined and or fired!

    It's pathetic to see anybody acting like this, never mind the people that are supposed to be running the country!

    And what kind of example does it set for youngster - if you don't get your way then try name calling and shouting.

    They are so far removed from reality they can't even see it!

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 24.

    MP#1 My dad's bigger than your dad
    MP#2 No my dad's bigger than yours!

    All the while they are just lying because in reality Rik Mayall had it right with Alan B'stard and they're all without any fathers at all.

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 23.

    We need some bruisers in the Commons - people who passionately believe in their cause - instead of the chameleon-like career poilticians.

    More straght talking and less "Hear! Hear!" and "Shame!" from people who do not really care as long as they continue to receive their fat salaries. They should receive an average salary and live in a hall of residence - no expenses and no second homes.

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 22.

    If they acted like they do in the house of commons when they are out polling for votes I wonder how many of them would be elected to the house of commons?

    I suspect not many.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 21.

    If only they'd stick to reasoned arguments instead of resorting to petty point scoring, ad hominem and what have you. You'd never get the likes of that on HYS.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 20.

    Always reminds me of a field full of donkeys. Lots of noise, lots of aromatic gas and nothing productive.

 

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