Wednesday, 16 September 2015

New style PMQs?

The start to Jeremy Corbyn's first essay as leader of the opposition was not auspicious. The preamble to his first question to the prime minister today was surely the longest since the modern format began, longer even than Ed Miliband's. David Cameron's response was apparently constructive, but so had been his first session with the last Labour leader. Over the next few weeks, the exchanges had swiftly degenerated into the habitual Punch-and-Judy show. So one should suspend judgment on Cameron v Corbyn until the clocks go back at least.

There was also a repeat of classic point-missing by Cameron. Corbyn's first three questions concerned the genuine cases of those people who were in work but yet had difficulties in maintaining decent living conditions. It is not enough to say that there are more people at work in this country than ever before. The government must either set a genuine living wage, maintain tax credits which are in effect a subsidy to employers paying low wages or move to reduce the costs - such as rent - which disproportionately affect the low paid. On the last, the message from the prime minister seemed to be that his governments had moved to make it easier to buy ones first home, another case of a missed point.

The innovation of naming members of the public who originated questions was striking, but could become tedious over time. I also predict that Conservative members will parody it if it persists. Besides, how many of the Maries cited as ordinary voters are in reality more part of the political process (e.g. trade union organisers, as the new leader himself once was) than Corbyn implied?

On the positive side, it was refreshing to see a leader of the opposition who actually listened to the answers and tailored his follow-up questions accordingly. Sticking rigidly to a script has been the bane of question times, not only at noon on Wednesday.

It has been stated that Corbyn intends to share his duties at PMQs with other members of his front-bench team. As one who urged a similar move on Liberal Democrats when Paddy Ashdown was originally elected leader, I can hardly object to that. My rationale then was not only to make better-known members of a small parliamentary party which was receiving little media coverage, but also to help dispel the myth of the Great Leader who knows everything, bringing to the fore experts on their subject. The first reason clearly does not apply to the Labour Party, but the second does.

On balance, it has been a promising start. It will be worth watching in future, especially if Corbyn keeps his questions short and sharp. I admired his style of incisive questioning when he was a back-bencher, especially when he exposed the differences with the then leadership of his own party, and trust he will revert to that style.

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