Parliament at night

‘Noise and bluster and showing off’ – What the public think of PMQs

Tuned in or Turned Off - Public attitudes to Prime Minister's Questions (2014)Tuned in or Turned off? Public attitudes to Prime Minister’s Questions, a new research report from the Hansard Society published today examines public attitudes to Prime Minister’s Questions and asks whether PMQs is a ‘cue’ for their wider negative perceptions of Parliament.

PMQs is the best known aspect of Parliament’s work, famous throughout the world for its combative, adversarial atmosphere. It is the bit of Parliament’s work that the public are most aware of and have likely seen on the television news. But while politicians and journalists have strong views about the value of PMQs, there is a scarcity of substantive evidence as to the public’s opinions.

Our focus group evidence indicates that heightened awareness of PMQs should not be mistaken for approval – the most common words associated with it are ‘noisy’, ‘childish’, ‘over the top’ and ‘pointless’.

Supporters of PMQs in its current form argue that it is great parliamentary drama, envied by citizens in other countries whose leaders are rarely held to account in public. But our focus group research shows that the drama and theatre of the event is not appreciated in a positive way. In the dismissive words of one participant, ‘this was noise and bluster and showing off – theatrical but not good’.

Tuned in or Turned off? Public attitudes to Prime Minister’s Questions tested the focus group findings as part of our annual Audit of Political Engagement polling. Key results are:

  • 67% of respondents agree that ‘there is too much party political point-scoring instead of answering the question’ – 5% disagree
  • 47% agree that PMQs ‘is too noisy and aggressive’ – 15% disagree
  • 40% agree ‘it deals with the important issues facing the country’ – 20% disagree
  • 36% agree it is ‘informative’ – 22% disagree
  • 33% agree ‘it puts me off politics’ – 27% disagree
  • 20% agree that ‘it’s exciting to watch’ – 44% disagree
  • 16% agree that ‘MPs behave professionally’ at PMQs – 48% disagree
  • 12% agree that PMQs ‘makes me proud of our Parliament’ – 45% disagree

Dr Ruth Fox, Director and Head of Research at the Hansard Society and co-author of the report commented:

‘PMQs is a cue for the public’s wider perceptions of Parliament. It provides a lot of the raw material that feeds their negative assumptions about politicians. The public think the conduct of MPs is childish and wouldn’t be tolerated in other work places. They think politicians are simply not taking the issues that affect their lives seriously enough.

As Parliament’s ‘shop window’, it portrays a damaging and misleading impression of what happens at Westminster because the public think that what happens at PMQs is how Parliament works all the time. Reform is overdue if PMQs is to move from being an inward-looking and self-referential event towards its proper role of scrutiny and accountability.’

Editors’ Notes

  • The Hansard Society is an independent, non-partisan political research and education organisation, working in the UK and around the world to promote democracy and strengthen parliaments.
    Research for Tuned in or Turned off? Public attitudes to Prime Minister’s Questions included four online focus groups (conducted in October 2013 in partnership with YouGov) plus a series of questions on the 11th annual Audit of Political Engagement opinion poll.
  • The focus groups comprised: National cross-section, 18-34s, Women C2DEs – with 35+ age skew, Non-voters at 2010 general election
  • For the Audit opinion poll, Ipsos MORI conducted face-to-face interviews (between 6-12 December 2013) at home with a representative quota sample of 1,286 adults aged 18 or above living in Great Britain.
  • Full details of the opinion poll survey can be found via the Audit of Political Engagement 11 page and you can download transcripts of the focus groups (available soon).
  • Further detail about qualitative and quantitative research is available in the appendices to Tuned in or Turned off? Public attitudes to Prime Minister’s Questions.
  • Suggestions for reform include: Changing the timing of PMQs; Changing the length of PMQs; Involving the public in asking questions; Strengthening the rules on conduct and behaviour; Cross-party agreement on penalties for ‘bad behaviour’ in PMQs
  • The research was supported by the Group on Information for the Public, UK Parliament. The report also draws on the Audit of Political Engagement project which is supported by the Cabinet Office and House of Commons.

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