In the past week there has been a concerted effort to reboot Ed Miliband’s image. First, he called for an end to photo opportunities – his haven’t been going so well, after all – and yesterday we heard Ed’s big idea to prove that he has substance: a formal proposal for members of the public to be able to question the Prime Minister each week. Unfortunately, this particular reboot seems no more effective than swearing at your laptop when the wi-fi keeps cutting out.
In the first place, the question time idea suffers from the problem of sounding an awful lot like, er, Question Time, which provides a forum for a supposedly representative audience to question top politicians. Ring a bell? Next, Miliband is going to pitch having Andrew Neill, Michael Portillo and Diane Abbott on a sofa in Westminster Hall for an irreverent chat about the week’s politics.
Even if we don’t have a problem with politicians ripping off TV shows – it would be intriguing to see what would happen if David Cameron were to try to solve the country’s financial problems by mass-producing pure crystal meth, for example – Question Time should not be at the top of the list. Frankly, it doesn’t add much to the democratic process. It usually turns into a slanging match that is every bit as depressing as the real PMQs, just without the decent put-downs. Nor do I feel well-represented by the collection of the sometimes thoughtful but occasionally wacky members of the audience who choose to attend.
More importantly, the Labour leader’s proposal misunderstands the way in which our democracy works, and does down Parliament in the process. MPs are elected by us as the mechanism for holding the executive to account –get rid of this function and all you leave them with is kissing babies and attending village fetes. We have well-resourced professionals doing the job, who are able to research the facts and are answerable if their questions are inaccurate – why replace them with amateurs who can’t be voted out at the next election?
There is, however, a deeper problem with a party leader’s main aspiration being to create another talking shop. Ironically, Miliband’s proposal is all about style and not at all about substance. Most people want our politicians to get things done, not talk about getting things done. Politics is a results-based business and we feel touched by politics when it affects our daily life. Compare the impact of the smoking ban to the difference made by PMQs each Wednesday.
Politics can and does matter – when we pay our taxes, go looking for work, or seek treatment on the NHS, political decisions determine what the outcome will be. There is a real benefit to making a government justify why it’s made the choices that it has – and that’s why we have PMQs. But much as we’d all like to have our leaders on the end of a phone, giving us each daily updates, their time is better spent making a difference than constantly chatting to us. Concentrating on words rather than action is just as superficial as worrying about how you eat a bacon sandwich.