Just over a year ago, the Hansard Society published a report entitled ‘Tuned in or Turned off?’ which looked in detail at public attitudes to Parliament, and to Prime Minister’s Questions in particular.
It concluded that while the public recognised Parliament’s “essential” role at the heart of our democracy, it was “deeply dissatisfied” with the culture and conduct of politics, with PMQs described as “a significant contributory factor in this disenchantment.”
“The public dislike the noise, the point-scoring and the perceived failure to answer the questions. The atmosphere confuses viewers and makes them feel uncomfortable – on occasion it is perceived to border on bullying,” said the thank-tank’s report.
Significantly, it revealed that many people saw the House of Commons through the prism of Prime Minister’s Questions and assumed that was how Parliament worked all the time.
Furthermore, the report revealed something of a North-South divide in attitudes, with respondents in the North and Scotland notably less positive about the Mother of Parliaments than their London and South East counterparts.
“On a range of core political engagement indicators, respondents in London have been noticeably more positive than those in other regions over the course of the last few years, closely followed by people from the South East, the South West and the East of England,” said the report.
“From the Midlands, Wales and north to Scotland, attitudes towards politics have been markedly worse.”
On the specific question ‘How satisfied are you with the system of government in the UK?” more than 40% of respondents in the North East gave a negative satisfaction rating.
So what is the relevance of all this to present day political events? And why dredge up a year-old report as the subject-matter for this week’s column?
Well, because this week’s PMQs encounter between Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband surely represented a new nadir in the history of this already-tarnished parliamentary institution.
Mr Cameron’s over-the-top description of his opponent as “despicable” for having failed to rule out a coalition between Labour and the SNP really ought to have qualified as unparliamentary language in my book.
And for his part, Mr Miliband – who said earlier this year there would be no personal attacks on Mr Cameron during the campaign – once again sought to turn his refusal to take part in a TV debate with him into an issue of character, branding him a “bully” who was “running for cover.”
Given the unlikelihood of the planned debate actually taking place, these knockabout encounters are probably as much as we are going to get by way of political discourse between the two men seeking to lead the country after May 7.
It is scarcely surprising that neither of them appears to be generating much enthusiasm among the voters and that neither party currently seems likely to be able to command an overall majority in the next Parliament.
Mr Miliband has spoken this week of legislation to ensure TV debates happen in future election campaigns and prevent future Prime Ministers “chickening out” of them for tactical political reasons, but while TV election debates are no bad thing in themselves, this is aiming at wrong target.
As the former BBC and ITV chairman Lord Grade rightly pointed out, the TV studios are not meant to the fount of democracy in this country. Parliament is.
In its report, the Hansard Society came up with a number of recommendations for reforming PMQs, including giving the Speaker the power to send MPs to the sin-bin for bad behaviour, cutting the number of questions from the Leader of the Opposition, and moving it to an evening slot.
But while some of these may have an impact, PMQs – and with it the reputation of Parliament – will only ultimately improve if the politicians themselves resolve to change their behaviour.
Whoever wins the election, restoring trust in politics remains perhaps the most urgent issue facing the longer-term democratic health of the country.
Otherwise, the progressive disillusionment with the political system that appears to be afflicting the North in particular will only grow more deeply entrenched.