Jeremy Corbyn has had an incredibly busy few days. On Saturday he was elected as Labour leader in a landslide victory, securing 59% of the votes in the very first round. Sunday and Monday were spent appointing his Shadow Cabinet and addressing the TUC conference in Brighton. And yesterday Parliament approved £4.4bn in tax credit cuts at the second reading stage, but this was overshadowed by the fact that when Corbyn attended a service commemorating the Battle of Britain, he stood silent instead of singing the national anthem.
Today saw another very public test in the form of Prime Minister’s Questions. PMQs often turns into a braying contest between government and opposition benches, but it is nevertheless a weekly opportunity for MPs to hold the Prime Minister to account. As leader of the opposition, Corbyn is entitled to put six questions to Cameron during the half-hour session. So what, if anything, can we learn from this first clash between the two party leaders?
Jeremy Corbyn first of all thanked those who had elected him and spoke of the need to reflect the views of people across the country, many of whom feel Parliament is out of touch and want their voice heard. He said he plans to use his first PMQs to try to deliver a new, calmer style, and had emailed the public to ask which questions they would like him to put to the Prime Minister. He received 40,000 replies, and he drew his six questions from the most frequently asked: two each on the topics of housing, tax credits and mental health services.
David Cameron said he would welcome a change in format so that PMQs became more of a genuine question and answer session than opportunity to exchange insults. He congratulated Corbyn on his ‘resounding victory’ and followed his lead in terms of tone, answering calmly and at no point attempting to stir up jeers from the government benches.
Corbyn’s six questions and Cameron’s answers
1. Jeremy Corbyn starts off with a question on housing submitted by Marie: ‘What does the government intend to do about the chronic lack of affordable housing and the extortionate rents charged by some private sector landlords in this country?’
David Cameron’s response is much more in line with the engaging style he used in the leadership debates rather than the usual PMQ offensive, beginning ‘So let me give a very direct answer to Marie’s question’. Perhaps it helps that there is a Marie to refer to; a very prominent reminder that some of the electorate (not a huge proportion, but perhaps enough to make a difference) are watching. He highlights a couple of positive stats from the government’s record before adding ‘but I recognise that much more needs to be done’, including reform of planning permission and extending schemes like Help to Buy. But he then drifts into purely pre-election territory, ending with ‘we won’t get Britain building unless we keep our economy going’, which turns the question to focus on Labour’s weak spot.
2. Corbyn turns the attention back to housing, saying the 1% cut on rent levels for council houses and housing associations ‘without thinking about the funding issues that those authorities face’ is a serious issue. He mentions Steve, who works for a housing association set to lose 150 jobs with knock-on effects for maintenance and repairs, before asking ‘Does the Prime Minister think it is time to reconsider the question of the funding of the administration of housing as well as, of course, the massive gap of 100,000 units a year between what is needed and what is being built?’
Cameron blames the previous ‘housing merry-go round’ whereby social rents went up, ‘so benefits went up, so taxes went up’ and it was ‘right’ to make the 1% rent cut. He believes that housing associations can be reformed to ‘improve’ their ‘efficiencies’.
3. Corbyn moves on to talk about the £4.4bn tax credit cut bill which was passed the previous day, saying it will ‘cost £1,300 per year to families affected by the change’. He reads in full a question from Paul: ‘Why is the government taking tax credits away from working families? We need this money to survive, so our children don’t suffer. Paying rent and council tax on a low income doesn’t leave you much. Tax credits play a vital role and more is needed to stop us having to become reliant on food banks to survive.’
Cameron responds to this one in full manifesto mode: ‘What we need is a country where work genuinely pays.’ He says their proposals ‘reform welfare’ but the upscaling to the living wage will equate to an ‘extra £20 per week’ for those on minimum wage. He is interrupted by cries of protest from the opposition and jokes ‘I thought this was the new question time?’ before rounding off with ‘What we’ve got to do is tackle the causes of poverty: get people back to work, improve our schools, improve childcare; those are the ways we can create an economy where work pays and everyone’s better off.’
4. Corbyn quotes figures form the Institute of Fiscal Studies showing that ‘only 26%’ of the income lost from the in-work benefits being cut will be made up for by the new national living wage. His next question comes from Claire: ‘How is changing the threshold to entitlement for tax credits going to help working people or families? I work part-time; my husband works full-time earning £25k; [we] have five children. This decrease in tax credits will see our income plummet. How is this fair?’
Cameron does not engage with the specifics of the question, saying they ‘inherited a system where being in work didn’t pay’ and we should not ‘go back to the days of unlimited welfare’. He rounds off by saying ‘a family that chooses not to work should not be better off than a family that chooses to work’.
5. Jeremy Corbyn responds very seriously, ‘Many people don’t have that choice. Many people live in a very difficult situation and rely on the welfare system in order to survive. Surely we have a responsibility to ensure people can live properly and decently in modern Britain.’ He then moves on to the topic of mental health, asking on behalf of Gail ‘Do you think it’s acceptable that mental health services in this country are on their knees at the present time?’
Cameron says this is one of the areas where the parties ‘can work together’ and they need to do more, but ‘mental health now has parity with physical health in the NHS constitution’ and the government has ‘backed the Stevens plan’ which can help with funding. He again links back to the economy, saying ‘if the Labour party is going to go down the route of unlimited spending, unlimited borrowing, unlimited tax rates, printing money they will wreck the economic security of our country … we won’t be able to afford the NHS without a strong economy.’
6. Corbyn says rather sternly he will ‘take the Prime Minister back to the situation of mental health in this country, it is very serious’. He welcomes mental health parity but highlights that there are people in desperate situations ‘who have taken their own lives due to the devestation they face’. He quotes Angela, a mental health professional: ‘Beds are unobtainable, with the result that people suffering serious mental health crises are either left without adequate care or are alternatively admitted to facilities many miles away from their homes, relatives and family support systems. The situation is simply unacceptable.’ Corbyn asks what the Prime Minister has to say to Angela.
Cameron says ‘we need to do more as a country to tackle mental health’ through extra money and ‘the service people get when they visit their GP’ with more access to cognitive behavouir therapies. It is also ‘vital’ that public attitudes towards mental health change. He concludes that ‘none of this is possible without a strong economy’.
Corbyn’s delivery was relatively slow but engaging. With his glasses perched on the edge of his nose and grey jacket perhaps a size too big, he looked like a professor at the lectern. He was polite throughout, leading by example for this ‘new style’ of PMQs, but his voice had a tenacious edge when he said he would bring the PM back to the point on mental health. It sounded like he could easily have gone up a few gears and delivered some venemous remarks, but chose not to, which was a pretty effective approach.
A new way of doing PMQs?
The chamber was much quieter than I’d expected: certainly, on the occasions I watched Ed Miliband tackle Cameron on PMQs, he attracted more jeers than Corbyn did today. Once Corbyn’s questions were finished, however, the remainder of the session threatened to slide back into usual format. The noise levels increased and a few MPs wove jibes into their questions, such as asking for recognition of the importance of the national anthem.
Any long-lasting change will require a different approach from the whole chamber, not just the party leaders, and the opposing-benches layout encourages an adversarial style. Perhaps a truly new way of doing PMQs would require a new venue.
But although there was still some predictable filler, this exchange had more content than the average session. Cameron and Corbyn both referred to facts and figures; Corbyn was putting forward views more representative of the general public than would usually be given floor time; the MPs were listening to both of them without any need for the Speaker to call the House to order; and the position of the two parties was made very clear on the three areas of policy they discussed.
Corbyn will not be able to put forward questions from the public every week, but his approach worked today. It provided a tangible break from the old Punch & Judy politics, and I hope both sides of the chamber decide to work towards a more factual and engaging format.