Still Turned Off? Public Attitudes to “People’s PMQs”

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Introduction

In his first appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) on 16 September 2015 the newly elected Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn MP, brought a new tone and approach to Parliament’s weekly joust. Having promised to end the traditional Punch and Judy theatrics, he turned PMQs into the ‘People’s Question Time’, choosing six questions from those submitted by 40,000 members of the public via an online forum on topics as diverse as mental health support, housing, and tax credits.

But did the public notice, and did it make any difference to how they viewed the session?

To find out, we commissioned YouGov to undertake an opinion poll on 18 September, repeating a series of questions we first asked about public attitudes to PMQs in our annual Audit of Political Engagement poll in December 2013 and published, alongside findings from some online focus groups, in our report, Tuned In or Turned Off? in early 2014.

The results must be treated cautiously as the YouGov survey was an internet based poll, whereas in 2013 a face-to-face survey was conducted in respondents’ homes by Ipsos MORI (for more detail on the methodological differences between the two surveys see the section on Methodology below). The results are therefore indicative rather than directly comparative. But they are nonetheless interesting for what they suggest about public attitudes to reform of this important aspect of our parliamentary process.

The audience

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn on television
Figure 1:
Q: Did you watch or see/hear any of PMQs?

Forty seven percent of the public claim to have seen or heard some of Corbyn’s first PMQs session; 15% to have seen it in full and 32% to have seen or heard clips on the news.1 In contrast, in December 2013, 54% said they had seen or heard some of PMQs at some point in the last twelve months. A 47% viewing/listening response rate is therefore comparatively high for a one-off session. This is supported by the BBC’s own audience figures (for viewers alone) which it estimated at 1.1 million, significantly higher than average.2

It remains to be seen whether audience figures at this level will be sustained when the novelty value wears off, but the results do suggest that the Labour leader’s promise of a new approach to PMQs did indeed ‘break through’, attracting a greater degree of public interest and attention than usual.

But what did they think of what they saw or heard?

... the increasingly yah-boo nature of the sessions ... risks bringing Parliament into disrepute

On the positive side, the public clearly noticed the change in tone and atmosphere at the new-style PMQs:

There was too much party political point-scoring
Figure 2:
There was too much party political point-scoring
  • Less than half – 46% – felt there had been too much ‘party political point-scoring instead of answering the question’, compared to 67% who said the same in December 2013.
  • Just 23% said that it was ‘too noisy and aggressive’, compared to 47% previously.
  • Only 10% said that it ‘puts me off politics’ compared to 33% last time.
  • And more than twice as many respondents agreed that ‘MPs behaved professionally’ – 34% thought so after the September sitting compared to just 16% in 2013.

But in three areas there was no discernible shift in public attitudes:

  • 20% agreed that they had found PMQs ‘exciting to watch’ – exactly the same proportion who said the same previously.
  • 37% thought the Corbyn session ‘was informative’ compared to 36% who said the same previously.
  • Just 14% said that the new form of PMQs made them ‘proud of our Parliament’, only a two percentage point increase on the 12% who said the same in 2013.

However, there was a modest decline in attitudes in one area:

  • Only 35% of respondents felt the September PMQs session dealt with ‘important issues facing the country’, whereas 40% agreed with this previously.

A cue for public perceptions

PMQs was exciting to watch
Figure 3:
'PMQs was exciting to watch'

Last year our research, Tuned In or Turned Off?, found that the public were deeply dissatisfied with the conduct of PMQs and the behaviour of MPs. Whilst they recognised that PMQs, in principle, is an important part of the democratic process because of the opportunity to hold the government to account, in practice it alienated, angered and frustrated them.

As such, the increasingly yah-boo nature of the sessions, described by the Speaker as a form of ‘scrutiny by screech’, risks bringing Parliament into disrepute. Because the public see Parliament largely through the prism of the House of Commons chamber, they commonly assume that PMQs is therefore how Parliament works all the time. It acts as a ‘cue’ for their wider perceptions of the institution, providing a lot of the raw material that feeds their negative assumptions about politicians and politics.

In our earlier report we therefore urged the party leaders to change the format in order to shake up public perceptions and persuade citizens to take a fresh look.

Corbyn’s ‘People’s Question Time’ did this and attracted a substantial audience. But how did it affect public attitudes?

Format: Behaviour and style

PMQs 'put me off politics'
Figure 3:
PMQs 'put me off politics'

Perhaps the two most interesting findings in this latest survey are that far fewer people say that what they saw or heard at the September PMQs put them off politics (just 10% compared to 33% last time) and twice as many people as previously thought MPs behaved professionally.

If Parliament’s weekly showcase is less alienating then citizens may be more willing to engage with the issues and the institution. And it is surely in the best interests of MPs, if they are ever to rehabilitate their collective reputations, that more members of the public think they behave professionally in their place of work.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that despite the improvement only just over a third of the public agree that the MPs behaved professionally, with a significant tranche of public opinion yet to be won over.

MPs 'behaved professionally' during PMQs
Figure 5:
MPs 'behaved professionally' during PMQs

Those who have hitherto defended the noisy, gladiatorial nature of PMQs have long argued that if the sessions were toned down or conducted differently the public would lose interest. These results suggest that the calmer tone and less theatrical nature of the September session didn’t necessarily make it less engaging as a spectacle.

... the new approach does not appear to have proved detrimental to the excitement quotient

Our previous research demonstrated that the public deeply dislike the noisy and aggressive nature of PMQs and decried the endless party point scoring rather than the straightforward asking and answering of questions.

PMQs was 'too noisy and aggressive'
Figure 6:
PMQs was 'too noisy and aggressive'

The public appear to have recognised that the new format was indeed less noisy and that party point scoring, if not absent, was certainly less overt than in the recent past.

And while one session alone is not enough to judge the long-term prospectus, the new approach does not appear to have proved detrimental to the excitement quotient.

Only a fifth of people who saw PMQs thought it was exciting in 2013 and exactly the same proportion thought this was also true of the September 2015 session. PMQs may be exciting for denizens of the Westminster village but, regardless of how combative it is, this is not the view of most members of the watching/viewing public.

Content

However, while the public appear to have liked the change in format and style they were less convinced by the content of the session.

Fewer people felt it dealt with the important issues facing the country, and the new approach did not augment the extent to which people felt informed about the issues being discussed.

On the one hand, asking questions from the public clearly makes it harder for party leaders to retreat into political point scoring and engage in the personal attacks that the public so dislike.

The format also enables the political spotlight to fall on important yet often under reported issues

The crowdsourcing of questions also introduces an element of public accountability to the weekly head-to-head which we have not seen previously. A key finding in our focus groups last year was that citizens want some form of ‘public oversight’ of the politicians at Westminster because they do not feel that MPs are currently accountable to them. Involving the public in this way, as first recommended in our report, Tuned In or Turned Off? may help address this concern.

PMQs 'dealt with the important issues facing our country'
Figure 7:
PMQs 'dealt with the important issues facing our country'

The format also enables the political spotlight to fall on important yet often under reported issues such as mental health. However, the Leader of the Opposition cannot wholly outsource his judgement about the questions to be asked to an unrepresentative sample of his own supporters.

If a third of the public think it does not deal with the important issues facing the country, and a third have no view or don’t know, then there is clearly room for improvement in terms of the content of the questions.

The September session dealt with mental health support, housing and tax credits but not the refugee crisis, the EU or the economy, all of which were topical issues in the news. Each citizen will of course have a different view as to what constitutes the important issues but a balance needs to be struck between issues that are important on any day and issues that are important on the day.

Corbyn also made a number of key mistakes in his approach to questioning.

First, he took up his full allocation of six questions and utilised them all on questions submitted by the public. This meant he moved from question to question without any follow-ups to forensically probe the Prime Minister’s answers. It resulted in a rather shallow form of scrutiny during which the Prime Minister was rarely under any pressure.

... sharp inquisition is a more effective weapon

Second, had it not been his first appearance at the despatch box the Speaker may have been less charitably inclined to permit what proved to be long and often meandering questions. On a number of occasions viewers and listeners could be forgiven for losing track of the question by the time he sat down. Short, sharp inquisition is a more effective weapon at PMQs and certainly makes for better viewing and listening.

PMQs 'made me proud of Parliament'
Figure 7:
PMQs 'made me proud of Parliament'

The Leader of the Opposition need not always take up his full allocation of six questions; previous Leaders have not always done so.3 This would allow more time for questions from backbenchers. And in future, he should certainly consider reducing the number of crowdsourced questions to one or two per week. This would allow him to focus on a particular line of questioning and take a more rigorous and forensic approach. For as well as being a vehicle to hold the Prime Minister and the government to account, PMQs is also a testing ground for opposition party leaders. The public can see their capacity to think on their feet, their resolve and nerve, their confidence and manners and the extent to which they can command the House. The content and line of questioning has to be structured with an eye to ensuring that the party leader has an opportunity to demonstrate these attributes to the public to best effect.

These survey results nonetheless represent partial vindication of Corbyn’s ‘new politics’ approach to PMQs.

In our earlier research, citizens were keen to see a ‘bit of decorum’ at the weekly sessions and the new approach certainly aspired to that objective. Involving the public through the crowdsourcing of questions has real potential and a calmer, more civilised tone does not necessarily make it less engaging to the public. But a change in style and format alone is not enough; it has to be married to razor sharp content.

... at some point in the near future the ‘new politics’ will cease to be fresh and new

Future improvements

Although there was clearly a positive shift in public attitudes to PMQs in some areas it should be remembered that these improvements were from a very low base. After the new, improved ‘People’s Question Time’ version of PMQs, still only a third of the public felt that MPs behaved professionally; nearly half felt there was too much party point scoring instead of answering the question; and just under a quarter still felt it was too noisy and aggressive. And there was absolutely no change (at 12%) at all in the number of people who felt that PMQs made them proud of Parliament.

But at some point in the near future the ‘new politics’ will cease to be fresh and new, and as the shine wears off public attitudes to PMQs may consequently regress.

That’s why there remains a good case for trialling more radical changes to PMQs. Our earlier Tuned In or Turned Off? research found support for questioning taking place in a smaller setting, permitting a more conversational, measured and civilised tone than the Chamber bearpit.

... a new committee PMQs format would allow ... for more sustained forensic questioning

One session a month, for example, could be held in committee rather than the Chamber, with participants drawn by lot from the backbenches by the Speaker. Chamber PMQs facilitates questioning in breadth rather than depth; a new committee PMQs format would allow, once or twice a month, for more sustained forensic questioning on fewer topics, substituting depth for breadth.

Alternatively, there could be a broader change in format with one session a month being held in a committee room rather than the Chamber, with the session lengthened to 45 minutes or an hour, and the focus placed on select committee reports published the previous month.

Select committees are the great success story of the House of Commons in recent years but too often governments still proffer late, cut and paste, and non-committal responses to their reports. Whitehall’s focus will be sharpened if the Prime Minister has to engage more directly with the detailed content of these reports on a more regular basis than at present.4

Back in the Chamber, while the two main party leaders may be committed to a more civilised discourse in future, there was plenty of evidence during the September sitting to suggest that some of their MPs will struggle with such an approach. The culture of the ‘planted question’ has not been eradicated and while the period when the Leader of the Opposition and Prime Minister were on their feet in tandem was quieter and more mature in tone this was not universally maintained during the rest of the session. The hole that exists in the rules governing disorderly conduct in the Chamber thus still needs to be addressed, empowering the Speaker to remove Members for the remainder of PMQs by applying a quick ‘sin bin’ penalty for bringing the House and Parliament into disrepute. Such a penalty might have a useful deterrent effect; indeed its success would lie in the rarity of its application.

.. there is a good case for moving PMQs from Wednesday lunchtime to a Tuesday or Wednesday evening session

Our previous research found that consumption of PMQs affected attitudes to it. Those who watched or listened to PMQs in its entirety were likely to think more positively about it than those who saw or listened to edited clips. However, those who were able to watch or listen to it in full were disproportionately over the age of 55 due to the timing of the session at 12 noon on a Wednesday. As such, and given the higher than average audience attracted to the September session (but one still disproportionately older), we maintain that there is a good case for moving PMQs from Wednesday lunchtime to a Tuesday or Wednesday evening session to enable more people to watch or listen to it in full. If questions from the public are to be a regular feature this is even more important a reform as some questioners may not be able to watch or listen to their own question being asked if they are at work.

It will clearly take more than one session to shift public attitudes and convince a sceptical public that the childish, aggressive, posturing they’ve witnessed previously, and often described in our focus groups as ‘pantomime farce’, has indeed been consigned to history.

But these latest results suggest that if modest reforms are sustained in future it may bear fruitful results in turning around some aspects of the public’s negative perceptions.

It is therefore our intention to track public attitudes to PMQs on a regular basis. We plan to revisit the questions in the coming months through a face-to-face in-house survey to facilitate more direct comparative analysis with our earlier research. This will also enable us to look at public attitudes to a number of PMQs sessions rather than a one-off initiative, and assess whether the new Opposition leader’s approach has been maintained and has indeed made a real and sustained difference.

Methodology

All figures from September 2015, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1,551 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 18th - 18th September 2015. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

The 2013 data is taken from our Audit of Political Engagement 11 survey. Ipsos MORI interviewed a representative quota sample of 1,286 adults in Great Britain aged 18+, face-to-face in respondents’ homes, between 6 and 12 December 2013.

All data is weighted to the national population profile of Great Britain and is subject to sampling tolerances.

There were minor, technical wording adjustments to the questions asked in the September 2015 survey to take account of different timescales involved (as this latest survey asked about public attitudes to a specific PMQs, while the 2013 survey asked about attitudes generally over a twelve month period). Given the methodological differences, in this paper we do not analyse the sub-group findings (age, gender, social class etc). However, the data is publicly available via our website – www.hansardsociety.org.uk - so that interested researchers can explore it in further detail.

Endnotes

  1. As previously, the audience was heavily-skewed to older age groups who are more easily able to watch/listen to PMQs on the day because of the 12 noon start time. Our previous survey research found that consumption of PMQs affected attitudes to it. Those who watched or listened to PMQs in its entirety were likely to think more positively about it than those who saw or listened to edited clips. This indicates that the way the media choose to cover PMQs has important ramifications for public attitudes towards it and towards Parliament more widely. This latest analysis does not differentiate between attitudes based on modes of consumption – further work needs to be done. The results simply compare the headline results for overall consumption.

  2. BBC Audience Research suggests 1.1 million people watched PMQs live across BBC Two, BBC News Channel, and BBC Parliament. The BBC Two Daily Politics show audience peaked at 700,000 compared to a weekly average of 500,000. But PMQs is also broadcast live on BBC Radio 5 Live and Parliament streams the sessions live on www.parliamentlive.tv and makes them available afterwards via its You Tube channel. The array of outlets therefore makes it difficult to quantify the total audience.

  3. If Mrs Thatcher, for example, was due to participate in another debate on a Tuesday or Thursday she would often not participate at all in that day’s session. John Smith was the first to take a full allocation of six questions per week (three questions per 15 minute session), a precedent now followed by his successors.

  4. The Prime Minister currently appears before the Liaison Committee, consisting of Select Committee chairs, just three times per year; a timeframe and format which does not allow for detailed questioning regarding their inquiries and reports.


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