The Hansard Society published an important piece of work on PMQs yesterday. As they rightly note, it’s one of the – if not, the – most high-profile bits of Parliament, and yet we know very little about how the public view it. (We’d know more if the ESRC hadn’t turned down a very good grant application a few years ago, but that’s better not spoken of…).
The Hansard research does not reveal a public in love with the way MPs behave at PMQs. Both the qualitative work (with focus groups) and the quantitative work (as part of their regular Audit of Political Engagement polling) produced overwhelmingly negative findings. Some 67% of the public think ‘there is too much party political point-scoring instead of answering the question’; and 47% think it ‘is too noisy and aggressive’. Just 20% think that ‘it’s exciting to watch’, compared to 44% who disagreed; a mere 16% agreed that ‘MPs behave professionally’ at PMQs, whilst some 48% disagreed; and just 12% thought it ‘makes me proud of our Parliament’, 45% disagreed. Some 33% agree it ‘puts me off politics’, compared to 27% who disagreed.
There were just two questions where the plurality response was positive, although neither was overwhelming: 40% thought it ‘deals with the important issues facing the country’, just 20% did not; and 36% agree it is ‘informative’, compared to 22% who disagreed.
There is no way of spinning these data to make PMQs look good. But one of the key findings of the Hansard report which has been much less remarked on is that the problem isn’t just PMQs itself, but the fact that most people – if they see it at all – only see clips of it on the news or similar. The latter group produces some of the most negative findings of all. On every one of the eight questions that Hansard asked about PMQs, those who only saw clips were more negative than those who had seen a full session of PMQs in the last year (the figure below shows the net score for each statement; that is, those who agreed minus those who disagreed), although the differences are not great in many cases and even those who had seen a full session were not exactly overwhelming with praise about such things as the point-scoring that goes on. So PMQs is part of the problem; but the other part of the problem is how it is reported. Still, Enoch Powell had the response to those who complain about the way the media report politics: it was like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea.
1. Net scores (% agreeing-%disagreeing), by viewing type
Of the eight questions that Hansard asked about, six are questions about the event as a performance – does it deal with important issues, is there too much point scoring, is it exciting, and so on – and two are about its effect on the respondent (it makes me proud, it puts me off politics). The latter are probably the more important. (If they hated the performance, but it had no impact on their faith in the institution, we’d not be overly bothered). With these two questions, there are very different responses depending on exposure to PMQs. The figure below gives the responses across all three categories – those who have watched a whole PMQs, those who’ve only seen clips, and those who have not seen any in the last year. (These data aren’t in the Hansard report but you can get them from here). Exposure to PMQs certainly diminishes self-reported pride in the institution of parliament (those who have seen both clips and a full session overwhelmingly gave negative responses to this question) but it does nothing to put people off politics. In fact, the more exposure one has to PMQs, the less likely you are to say it puts you off politics. Many of those who don’t watch PMQs gave don’t know responses to these questions – perfectly fairly – but still, of those who did, the group who didn’t watch PMQs were the most negative in terms of its impact on their involvement with politics. The group who had actually watched a whole session in the last year overwhelmingly didn’t think it would put them off politics.
2. Net scores (% agreeing-%disagreeing), by viewing type
What would be really interesting – but not done in yesterday’s report – would be to put exposure to PMQs into a more general model of satisfaction with politics and/or parliament, to include it along with other variables such as age, income, and so on, to see what effect it has. We’d place a sizeable wager – well, at least a bottle of something decent – on it having no overall negative effect at all.