By Alice Harper
With Westminster left suddenly quiet, are there lessons to be learned from the new normal?
At a time where the world seems to be constantly shouting, it is interesting how lockdown has brought back a sense of quiet in some areas. Of course, the “yelling into the void” of social media never stops, but the demands of social distancing have left many UK workplaces deserted and still. This extends from the thousands of independent shops, bars and cafes locked up across the country, to the halls of power in Westminster. Politicians, like everyone else, have been forced to adapt. And the resulting changes are perhaps surprising.
A feature of House of Commons debating that I always found so hard to stomach, even from short clips on the news, was the incessant jeering and whooping from the back benches. Whatever nugget of information we were meant to glean from the clip would usually be drowned out. Apart from being a distraction, the indiscriminate jibes and cheers always seemed to have a particular “old boys club” public school energy about them. The overall impression was one of hotheaded, upper class banter, rather than the measured and respectful atmosphere we might hope for in our Houses of Parliament.
Discussion v Disorder
These boisterous surroundings were something our Prime Minister often seemed to benefit from. Boris Johnson’s style of delivery has always been closely linked with his well-known “lovable buffoon” political personality. His signature bluster, visually backed up by his flyaway hair and well-meaning expression, has arguably been a vital component of his career success. Boris relies on being able to bumble his way through interviews, avoiding answering awkward questions while managing to win people over with a rueful smile.
During the Conservative election campaign, this personality came into its own, as he employed it while delivering various speeches and conducting debates. In front of a crowd of supporters, or backed by his party sitting directly behind him, Boris could deliver a series of quickfire, memorable statements (think ‘Get Brexit Done’), to gales of appreciative laughter, cheers and applause. This not only gave him confidence, presumably, but punctuated his speeches for him and gave more apparent clout to his statements, whether they warranted it or not.
Outside Westminster, noisy input from audiences at debates also seems to have increased in recent years. Understandably, before the 2019 ‘Brexit Election’, tensions were higher than in the past, and the referendum almost acted like an invitation for the public to continue offering their political opinions. Both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn were heckled during TV debates in the run up to the election, with audience members repeatedly scoffing at their answers. Of course, it is vital that our representatives are held to account, but these kinds of surface level jeers hardly add anything constructive to the discussion.
It has been fascinating, since lockdown, to see the shift in how debates are conducted. With social distancing rules, the rows of support in the Commons have suddenly been stripped away, leaving the Prime Minister and leader of the opposition alone and apparently more vulnerable. Commentators have noted how Boris Johnson in particular has floundered in this new environment, maybe due to his usual noisy safety net being removed. It is interesting to see how these conditions don’t appear to be as much of an issue for new Labour leader Keir Starmer who, with his years of experience as a barrister, is used to delivering statements under pressure which will stand up to scrutiny. Indeed, it is his own thorough questioning which now appears to be flooring Boris Johnson, who had perhaps grown used to winning a battle of personality and quips against Jeremy Corbyn.
A New Beginning?
In this new setup, it is refreshing to hear both sides deliver their points and respond to questions totally on their own. There is no longer any need to begin speaking immediately to drown out potential heckles, and if they have difficulty answering this is now plainly visible without the hoots of support to cover mistakes. It has become more important for our leaders to conduct themselves properly in debates, which seems like a reasonable expectation. There is no room for getting by simply on bravado when your only physical audience is your opponent, waiting in silence for you to make your point.
Aside from politicians being held accountable more often for their statements, this new atmosphere simply feels a lot more civilised. It may seem dull to advocate for calm, professional debating, but is this not what we pay our politicians for? If customer service standards were perceived to be falling, for example, in the hospitality industry, outrage would be expected across traditional and online media. We elect our MPs to make decisions which affect the lives of millions of people. Why should their conduct and behaviour not be held to just as high a standard?
There is a lot to be said for simply treating one another with respect, in all sections of society. The last few years in the UK have seen divisions on a scale many have not yet encountered in their lifetimes. Brexit has been one of the main sources of argument, but there also seems to be a general trend of people oversimplifying different points of view and shouting over one another. There is an ongoing conversation about how social media can exacerbate this problem, an issue which is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. Yet the current situation may provide examples of how we can be better. For many people, though not all, there has been a forced switch to a slower, quieter pace of life which has thrown some truths into sharper focus.
It is possible to disagree with your opponent’s approach to policy and still listen respectfully to their point of view. It should be possible for politicians to address one another maturely, rather than resorting to infantile jibing and insults. Parties across the political spectrum have been guilty of this: it wastes time which could be spent more constructively on listening to each other. We as an electorate trust MPs to act in our best interests and do their jobs well, and equally we look to them for leadership we can be proud of. In serving their country, politicians should be setting an example of how to conduct debates properly. The changes during lockdown indicate the possibility of a far less hysterical, and more effective, future of debating and policy making.
Art courtesy of Izzie Armitage.