Jeremy Corbyn has been making headlines every day for the last week despite doing very little other than name his shadow cabinet, but the first test of the new Labour leader was to take on the Prime Minister at PMQs: the political establishment’s weekly version of the FA Cup final. It became clear early on, however, that Mr Corbyn was telling the truth when he said he wanted to change PMQs, unlike Mr Cameron who when Ed Miliband used to ask him questions would take seconds for his face to take on the appearance of a piece of gammon. The specific way that Corbyn conducted his first PMQs was refreshing and, despite my early reservations about going after the PM, quite politically astute.
In the preamble before asking his first question Corbyn pointed out the sheer scale of the response to his email asking for questions as well as how the tone of PMQs would be different for the duration of his time as the Leader of the Opposition. This move was politics at its best because Corbyn is setting the agenda for PMQs from members of the public thus building on the idea of him being a voice of the people whilst enabling the sympathetic elements of the press to print headlines favourable to Corbyn such as “People’s Question Time” in The i, and “A Revolution in Parliament” in the Morning Star.
Corbyn’s first question on the housing crisis was met with a preprepared answer from Cameron about how the Tories had done more than Labour had in 13 years of government; although this is true it has got to the point where even the right-wing press are saying that brining up Labour’s faults isn’t actually an answer to the question, especially as the Tories have now been in government for over half a decade. What became apparent rather quickly was that when faced with a politician that genuinely cares about the issues and doesn’t try political point-scoring at every turn, Cameron immediately pivoted back to meaningless platitudes and blaming the last government (which he actually means the government before last because there was an election did actual recently).
The second of Corbyn’s questions was also on this topic, particularly regarding the funding of housing administration, which was refreshingly unsexy. Cameron’s response was archetypal of his pro-austerity stance; rather than address the lack of funding for the administration of housing, Cameron spoke about how housing associations should undergo “efficiencies”, which is the PM’s unsubtly euphemism for cuts, but didn’t seem to understand that further reducing the amount of money available for housing administration would make the housing crisis worse.
Corbyn then changed the topic of the conversation to welfare cuts and attempted to appeal to whatever part of David Cameron could still be considered human. Unfortunately this didn’t seem to work as Cameron spoke about the need to “tackle the causes of poverty and making work pay”, which everybody would agree with in principle but Cameron has proved that he believes this can be done by hurting the most vulnerable in society. If the Prime Minister truly believed this he wouldn’t support suppressing trade unions, allowing corporate welfare and tax avoidance, and cutting welfare which would only make poverty even worse.
He also then said that Britain shouldn’t “go back to the old ways of doing things”, in reference to the last Labour government. Considering what caused the financial crisis and subsequent ballooning of public expenditure was bank deregulation rooted in neo-liberal capitalism, which he has continued, it would appear to anybody vaguely aware of politics or economics that Cameron has started to believe his own propaganda, especially as the Labour Party is now led by somebody who believes in socialism.
Cameron, in response to Corbyn’s second question on welfare cuts responded with the wonderfully meaningless phrase “we have to live within our means”, as if the finances of one of the richest countries in the world is like a household budget. As well as the millionaire Prime Minister lecturing the poor on saving money, he said that too many families were choosing welfare over working and that the system was unaffordable.
Firstly the welfare bill can reduced by raising the minimum wage to a living wage, introducing rent caps and renationalising the energy companies to simultaneously increase living standards and reduce the cost of living; secondly the stigma attached to welfare by the media and wider society is so strong that I sincerely doubt that any family would choose to labelled as ‘scroungers’. Also it is common knowledge that, much like crime, the perception of welfare fraud is much higher than it actually is; research from the TUC in 2013 showed that the British public think welfare fraud amounts to 27% of the total budget, when it is in fact 0.7%, thus making Cameron’s tough line on welfare an instant vote winner.
The final two questions were centred on mental health services and in response to Corbyn’s first question on the subject the Prime Minister was giving a perfectly fine answer, albeit vague on certain specifics, but then couldn’t help himself from political point scoring by bringing up the economy because he knows the Tories poll better on economic competence. He also painted Labour winning in 2020 as a recipe for economic disaster despite the fact that many of Corbyn’s policies are perfectly common in mainland Europe and are incredibly popular with the electorate. The final question from the new Labour leader was particularly focussed on the care situation regarding mental health, which Cameron responded with the expertly meaningless statement: “we need to do more as a country about mental health”. Once again Cameron couldn’t help himself saying something total devoid of meaning, in order not to alienate any voters, rather than giving specific details about what he intends to do on this crucial issue. This last question emphasised perfectly why Corbyn’s change of PMQs will be successful in the long-term.
When Cameron and Miliband faced off it was often two people sticking on one issue for the duration based on whatever topic was hot in the press so that the two leaders would take turns throwing mud at each other. However Corbyn’s hostility towards the traditional media and his focus on the public’s questions for the PM makes preparation for PMQs, from Cameron’s perspective, almost impossible as the emails sent to Corbyn and the Labour leader can choose any he wants; the Prime Minister’s propaganda machine may be a good one but there is no conceivable way in which they can prepare answers for 40,000 questions covering all aspects of government policy every week.
Similarly, because the questions are so diverse in subject and come from members of the public, Cameron cannot yell and complain when Corbyn changes the subject because the Labour leader can say that he is trying to articulate the views of people across society. Cameron’s arsenal of insults has also been reduced because Corbyn was never a part of the New Labour bubble, Corbyn was elected by all sections of the Labour Party and cannot be derided as being in the debt of the trade unions, and doesn’t run away from being called a socialist.
By Corbyn transforming PMQs in this way he has forced Cameron to defend his record and, although it was less entertaining for political junkies like myself, the wider public are now more able to see what the government is doing without having to wade through a wall of noise.