Corbyn tries sincerity in ‘den of artifice'

Punch and Judy make peace: Cameron and Corbyn launch a more ‘consensual’ weekly joust.

Prime minister’s questions, the world’s best-known political bear-pit, was transformed yesterday by the new Labour leader’s ‘civilised’ style. Dull as ditchwater? Or what voters really want?

He has only been in office for five days. But Jeremy Corbyn has already been slammed from all sides of the political spectrum. His shadow cabinet does not have enough top roles for women, say some; he has the wrong stance on the EU referendum, say others; it was a ‘disgrace’ not to sing the national anthem at a Battle of Britain memorial service; his foreign policy is ‘a threat to Britain’s security’.

For many, his first appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) was a final chance to prove his abilities as a party leader before they lost hope.

Few suspected how revolutionary his approach would be. Peering over his glasses at David Cameron, he calmly accused parliament of being ‘out of touch and too theatrical’. Instead of the usual six questions tailored to humiliate his opponent, he had ‘crowd-sourced’ his topics from the public and received around 40,000 suggestions.

He first quoted a woman called Marie with a question on the ‘chronic lack’ of affordable housing in the UK. A question from Paul asked about the ‘absolutely shameful’ cuts to tax credits. Gail asked Cameron whether it was ‘acceptable’ that mental health services were ‘on their knees’.

The prime minister’s responses were characteristically slick. He would be ‘delighted’, he said, with a more ‘genuine’ style of weekly questioning.

PMQs is the most extreme example of ‘adversarial’ politics in the world, often descending into jeers and name calling. Last year the House of Commons Speaker John Bercow criticised party leaders for their ‘yobbery and public school twittishness’.

Everything about British politics is built for a confrontational style. Even the shape of the House, with rows of opposing benches, is more combative than the semi-circles of many other parliaments.

Farcical or dull?

It’s about time that politics got civil, say some commentators. Government should be about working together to produce results, not an ‘ill-mannered and pointless exchange of insults’. A more calm and measured debate will also be popular with the public, who are often put off by the ‘farce’ of a childish row. It might even attract some new, more reasonable people to politics.

But others argue that the ‘plain porridge’ style is just as off-putting to the public; it’s too boring. The issues discussed can have a huge effect on people’s lives, and they deserve more passion if politicians disagree — as Corbyn and Cameron do. Besides, presenting two opposing sides and challenging each other’s arguments is a good way to get to the truth. That, after all, is the whole point of having an opposition.

You Decide

  1. Who ‘won’ PMQs this time?
  2. Should politics be entertaining or just serious?

Activities

  1. Agree in class one question you would like Jeremy Corbyn to ask David Cameron at the next PMQs.
  2. Split the class in two and hold your own debate on the issue of tax credit cuts. Try the ‘consensual’ style first, then switch sides for a more ‘adversarial’ debate. Which did you prefer?

Some People Say...

“Discussion is an exchange of knowledge; an argument an exchange of ignorance.”

Robert Quillen

What do you think?

Q & A

Why does this matter?
It’s right at the heart of our democratic system. The opposition has the important job of holding the current government to account, making sure they keep their promises, and clarifying their position on certain topics. How they go about doing that is absolutely worthy of discussion.
Could we see Jeremy Corbyn answering the questions one day?
Only serving prime ministers or their appointed deputies get to do the answering. Corbyn can’t become prime minister until the next general election in 2020.

Word Watch

EU referendum
Corbyn has so far refused to commit to whether he would campaign to stay in the EU ahead of Britain’s upcoming referendum on the issue. Until we know more about Cameron’s proposed EU reforms, he has said, he cannot guarantee a position.
Battle of Britain
During the summer of 1940, Hitler was planning to invade Britain as he had much of Europe. Britain’s air forces battled those of Nazi Germany, and were eventually successful; Hitler changed his invasion plans. 15 September saw the 75th anniversary of the most decisive day.
Foreign policy
Corbyn has expressed a belief in ‘political and not military solutions’ when it comes to problems abroad. Accused of welcoming terrorist organisations as ‘friends’, he has defended his actions as ‘you don’t make peace unless you talk to everybody’.
Tax credits
On Tuesday, the government voted to pass proposed cuts to tax credits, which will affect those already in work. Cameron has argued that the new ‘living wage’ will make tax credits unnecessary; opponents fear that families will be worse off.

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