Westminster bubble

If Labour is serious about people power it must do more than propose public-access PMQs

Go on, ask me another. PA wire

Ed Miliband’s recent proposal to hold regular Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) with members of the public was met with derision from some commentators. In typical critical fashion, Telegraph blogger Dan Hodges said the proposal by the Labour leader was a “glaring example of precisely the sort of superficial gesture politics he decries” and “will only serve to drive a further wedge between our MPs and those who elect them”.

Hodges also assumes that people are not really interested in deepening their engagement in politics because “they have jobs to do, bills to pay, children to rear, elderly parents to care for” and presumably prefer to put their trust on the wise judgement of elected politicians and unelected commentators like him. In similar vein, Ian Martin called it a “terrible idea that is very obviously a desperate gimmick”.

Hodges and Martin show a laudable patriotic attachment to the Westminster model of government, where the men and women in Westminster and Whitehall always know best. The problem is that citizens in Britain and elsewhere no longer trust the institutions of representative democracy. Voters are less tolerant of corruption, incompetence and no longer view their leaders as the public-interested men imagined by Edmund Burke and James Madison.

Dozens of studies have shown that not only voters mistrust politicians but fewer and fewer bother to vote. The 2013 Audit of Political Engagement published by the Hansard Society noted a “worrying decline in the public’s propensity to vote” with only 41% of the public saying they are certain to participate at the next general election.

The rowdy atmosphere of PMQs is not the main cause of voters’ disengagement with politics but it became symbolic of the current malaise of British democracy. As a window into the political system the Victorian rituals of PMQs are a huge turn-off to voters. Members of the public interviewed by the Hansard Society were not impressed with what they saw: 67% of respondents said that there was “too much party political point-scoring instead of answering the question” and 47% thought PMQs “is too noisy and aggressive”. One person said it was “like a scene from a school playground” whereas another said it “was great for the tourists, crap for the country”.

Speaker John Bercow is well aware of the reputation of PMQs and he is currently drafting proposals to remove its most farcical and archaic rituals. But if the modernisation of PMQs might transform it into a more dignified parliamentary practice, it will fall short of the public’s expectations. In the same Hansard Society report some respondents suggested the public should have a role in the process, both by submitting questions to the prime minister in the House of Commons but also outside Parliament.

Under Miliband’s proposal, members of the public would be able to submit questions to the Prime Minister on a weekly or fortnightly basis. Those asking questions would be selected by a method that would ensure a wide representation of the country.

This idea is consistent with Miliband’s long-standing interest in “letting the public into our politics”. He promised to lower the voting age to 16 and to make public services delivery more responsive and empowering for citizens. He talked vaguely about reforming the system of party funding, showed great enthusiasm for the movement politics of grass-root associations such as Citizens UK and promised a people’s power revolution.

But if this proposal is a step in the right direction, it will do little to let the public in. Greater civic and political engagement depends on more far-reaching reforms than being able to ask questions to the prime minister. Letting people into politics requires a genuine open door policy that implies that the voice of the public is actually considered at the time of decision-making.

In practice this would include the regular use of democratic deliberation on issues that matter to the public such as constitutional reform (like the recent Irish constitutional convention), local public spending (such as the participatory budgeting used in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre and some English cities) or any major political decision that is potentially divisive (for example, the introduction of user charges to the NHS). The output of these public deliberations would then filter through Britain via institutional or informal mechanisms.

To be fair, Labour has been discussing some of these initiatives. For instance, Labour’s policy review coordinator Jon Cruddas said the exercise in deliberative polling in Essex and the participatory budgeting of Durham are good examples of citizens’ greater involvement in politics. But if Labour is serious about people power it should propose similar initiatives and explain to voters how these new mechanisms would improve Britain’s democracy.

It might just be that an initiative of this nature has the potential to become the bold, transformative proposal still missing from Miliband’s agenda.