A modest suggestion for Labour’s new leader

Dear Mr Miliband,

Like, I’m pretty sure, thousands of other members and supporters of the Labour party, I was immensely heartened and impressed by your conference speech on Tuesday.  It was a real tour de force; your commitment and radicalism shone through it.  Many of us have been waiting far too long to hear some of the things you said.  Bravo!

You mentioned that you had been receiving a good deal of largely unsolicited advice.  Well, here’s one more unsolicited but modest suggestion.  There are lots of policy issues which we could all press on you (and I almost certainly shall in due course), but there’s one particular thing that deserves urgent attention, before parliament meets again.  It’s about your pledge to change politics — and specifically about Prime Minister’s Questions.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of PMQs as the forum in which the people of Britain will get to know you, and to judge you.  It’s also impossible to overstate the disgust that thousands of us have been experiencing, week by ghastly week, at the puerile punch-and-judy punch-up that PMQs have sunk to in recent years — not only at the childish exchanges of insults between the two principals but also at the meaningless baying from the back benches.  Not many people are such political nerds, or have so much spare time on a weekday, that they can watch each week’s PMQ’s from start to finish (as I generally do), but tens of thousands see the clips on their television news and current affairs programmes, and the clips, seen and heard in isolation from their context, are often even more dreadful than the ritual corrida as a whole.

Ed MilibandYou appealed for a grown-up debate on the real issues facing us. There can be no better place to start it than PMQs.  Cameron will of course try to patronise, provoke and rile you, egged on by the coalition pack.  What a brilliant impression you will make if your questions are courteous requests for information that you genuinely want to have, and if your reactions to petty point-scoring are calm and polite!  You might make it a rule never to ask a question to which you already know the answer:  it’s an opportunity to seek information about government policy and practice, not for laying traps.  By all means express withering scorn for Cameron’s taunts and condescension, remind him that he’s there to provide information and not to score points, but then repeat your courteous request for the information you perfectly reasonably seek.  You might tell him that if you can treat him with the respect due to the prime minister of our country, the least he can do is treat you with the respect due to the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.  Shame him, don’t score off him.

Before your first PMQs, you will need to tell the parliamentary Labour party in a private session that you are determined to change PMQs into an occasion that will win public respect instead of scorn, and that to achieve this you will need the cooperation of your back-benchers:  no more baying and howling, no more loud false laughter, no more jeering.  A few quiet ‘Hear, Hears’ to salute your best points should be quite enough.  A few louder ‘Hear, Hears’ to greet those of your questions in which you actually welcome aspects of government policy, and pay suitable compliments to those ministers doing the right things, will be even better.  How civilised it will be if you can refrain from making lengthy speeches to introduce each question — and, if I might discreetly say so, we have by now firmly grasped the point about how much you love your brother.  Enough said.

The impression you’ll be able to make by this dramatic change of style should be immediate and hugely favourable.  Of course your speeches and the way you handle radio and television interviews will be important too — and you have shown in your interview on the Andrew Marr Show last Sunday that you have real flair in that tricky department.  But PMQs may prove to be the most important litmus test of all.  It will require almost superhuman self-control not to bite back in response to intolerable provocation, not only from the prime minister but also from the supporting primates beside and behind him.  If you can bring yourself to treat them as humans, and grown-up humans too, perhaps they will start to behave like grown-up humans.  Even if they don’t, the effort will add hugely to your stature.  I’m sure you will bring it off superbly.

Best wishes:  you’ve made a cracking start, if I might respectfully says so — all you have to do now is keep it up.

PS:  Yes, I cast both my first preferences for you — and your conference speech vindicated my judgement in spades.


6 Responses

  1. I am not a member nor even a supporter of the Labour party, but I too was favourably impressed by Ed Miliband’s speech. I liked both the content and the style of delivery. I do not like florid speeches. Mussolini, Hitler and Blair had ‘charisma’ and all led their countries into disastrous wars. Clement Attlee achieved more than any other post-war prime minister, but he was quite taciturn. Harold Wilson said his greatest achievement was the Open University; but I think it was saying ‘No’ to Lyndon Johnson and refusing to join in the Vietnam War (in contrast to Australia’s “all the way with LBJ”  from which Gough Whitlam had to extricate them). Ed Miliband could do worse than model himself on Attlee and Wilson and Ernest Bevin showed independence from America in giving China de facto recognition. I of course liked his expression of respect for Lloyd-George, Beveridge and Keynes as well as his statement that the invasion of Iraq was wrong and his support for AV – although I wonder if it will be enough to get it through. I think it is good that Labour has a leader who was not in Parliament when the vote on the invasion of Iraq was taken so there can be that break with the past. 

    What you say on PMQs exactly mirrors my own views. I find that a repugnant spectacle, much as the press and  MPs may enjoy it. I find it appalling that the chamber is crowded for this exhibition and then most leave before a Minister’s statement that often follows. It should be an opportunity for back-benchers to put serious questions to the PM. I am not impresssed by the behaviour that apparently is taught at Eton. 

    Brian writes: Thanks very much for this, Derek. I agree with your comments and find it depressing that so many of our right-of centre media commentators have been so scornful and dismissive about what on any normal reckoning was quite a revolutionary (and certainly extremely interesting) speech. Parts of it were also revealing and moving. However the Guardian got it right, with an appreciative leading article that picked out all the salient points.

    I hope someone will bring my suggestions about the handling of prime minister’s questions to Mr Miliband’s attention!

  2. ObiterJ says:

    Rather like the good advice we give to our children, it will be ignored !!

    Brian writes: Thanks. I’m not sure that’s necessarily so. I think it’s advice that might be quite welcome. But the leader may be thwarted by his own followers!

  3. Tim Weakley says:

    Many thanks for that post, Brian.  When the proposal for televising Parliamentary proceedings was first mooted, a number of people both in and outside Parliament were against the idea precisely because PMQ would appear to the nation as a spectacle akin to feeding-time at the Zoo, or the chimp’s tea-party at Whipsnade, or perhaps a gladiatorial display, and would create the worst impression and enhance the national contempt for the ‘gas-works’.  Evidently – I have never actually watched PMQ on the box – they were right.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Tim. I have watched it many, many times, and it’s generally all of the above.

  4. PMQs are a ghastly spectacle. I watched from the press gallery for two years and found it appalling.  Your suggestion for reforming it, however, is a triumph of pious hope over experience.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, John. You may be right: perhaps it’s a lost cause. But the pols need to be reminded from time to time what harm they do themselves when they behave like schoolchildren. And with a new leader, there’s no harm in making the suggestion!

  5. Iain Orr says:

    Your suggestion of PMQs as one place where “new politics” can be practised unilaterally is excellent.   You also correctly recognised that it would be essential for Ed Miliband to get his backbenchers onside.   But you might have put the screws on harder:  if he fails to remould PMQs he will be squandering a huge opportunity to fill the biggest gap in his CV – leadership qualities.
    Those who have commented, in effect, “Dream on, Brian!” fail to notice how civility to their partners has been a mark of Coalition politics.  The “old politics” of snide sniping remains, but mainly within Conservative and LibDem backbenchers.   The media love it:  I’m not sure that the public do.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Iain. You make a very interesting point about the apparent effect of coalition politics on civility levels and the contrast between civility within and civility between parties. Miliband E. will indeed be wasting a massive opportunity if he allows himself to be pushed into resuming juvenile hostilities in the same old way when he faces a sneering Cameron across the despatch box.

  6. John Miles says:

    Perhaps I’m wrong, but I seem to remember that when Mr Major first took over from Mrs T, PMQ became quite civilised for a week or two, and much the same happened when Mr Blair first led the opposition.

    But we soon reverted to the mean.

    One of the things that gets up my back is the way prime ministers get away with saying things like,  “I’ll not take any lectures from a party which voted against  the institution of marriage.” when all you did was vote against some ridiculous method we suggested of propping it up, and they then feel entitled to give us all yet another totally irrelevant party political broadcast.

    I’m always frightened I might miss something important, but seldom manage to watch it all the way through.

    Brian writes: Thanks, John. I entirely agree that cheap attempts at partisan point-scoring in PMQs are intensely irritating, and bring the participants into disrepute. It’s encouraged by television programmes immediately afterwards in which solemn pundits debate “who won”, of all the inane questions. Unfortunately it seems that the party leaders are given to understand that aggressive point-scoring against the other side is heartening and invigorating to the massed Other Ranks behind them, and that it fosters continuing support for the party leader who ‘wins’ the greater number of these puerile exchanges. That says more about the mentality of the Other Ranks (back benchers) on both sides than it does about the far greater maturity of the electorate whose distaste for politics and politicians it aggravates. Well, we shall soon know whether Ed Miliband has the intestinal fortitude to withstand the pressure to continue the bear-pit tradition.

    Please also see the comments on the same post at