Most commentators noted that the tone at Wednesday’s PMQs had shifted significantly from the reserved and hushed tones of previous meetings to a more rowdy and challenging tone yesterday. This illustrates what I call the ‘audience as participant’ effect whereby the audience (the chamber of MPs in this case) claims certain rights to the floor despite the fact that the conversation at PMQs is globally managed by the Speaker and turns are allocated by him. These rights include the right to cheer, jeer, laugh at and generally interrupt proceedings to voice their feelings, attitudes and concerns. Whilst the audience can never be called on to take a turn, they are able to influence the discourse as if they were a participant and the current speaker has to negotiate with this to establish the floor in the way he or she sees fit.
Example: Audience as Participant
In the example below, Jeremy Corbyn (JC) is called to speak by the Speaker (SP) but it takes him some time to establish the floor as he negotiates with a rowdy chamber. After a loud 5 second cheer to greet his rising, JC starts to speak but is halted twice by further noise in the chamber. JC confronts these disturbances by pausing and re-starting his message along with his trade-mark stare. This is the characteristic style of Corbyn in his new role as learner of the opposition as he attempts to develop a more subdued and serious approach to PMQs. This week however we saw that the chamber is starting to exert its right to influence proceedings in the way it sees fit, which is clearly at odds which what Corbyn wants; the audience is acting as participant.
SP: Jeremy Corbyn Chamber: ((loud 5 sec cheer)) JC: thank you (.) thank you mister speaker (.) I concur wi- Chamber: ((some noise and laughter)) (2.0) JC: I concur with the prime minister’s (1.0) Chamber: ((more noise)) JC: I concur with the prime minister’s remarks concerning remembrance Sunday …
Example: Audience as judge of appropriateness of question
In this example, the audience (Conservative MPs mostly) give their opinion on how appropriate they feel Corbyn’s first question is. The previous week, Corbyn had asked Cameron the same question (regarding tax credits) six times. This week he returns to the same questions and some members of the audience voice their dismay.
JC: last week I asked the prime minister the same question six times mister speaker and he couldn’t answer he’s now had a week to think about it[wo- Chamber: [((groans from some members)) JC: ((glance at chamber)) JC: I wanna ask him one more time can he (.) guarantee ...
At the end of one answer, Cameron (DC) made light of Corbyn’s attempt to ask the same question repeatedly and asked whether this strategy fitted in with Corbyn’s call for a ‘new politics’, for which Cameron got a large cheer from his own back benches.
DC: now (.) if he wants to spend the next five questions asking it all over again I’m sure he’ll find that er is very entertaining and interesting how it fits with the new politics I’m not quite sure but er over to you ((gestures to Corbyn)) Chamber: ((cheers of agreement))
Corbyn picked up on Cameron’s use of the word ‘entertaining’ to try and bring the discourse back to a more subdued and serious tone, but the chamber was in disagreement as to whether this would work which meant Corbyn had to negotiate to establish his right to the floor.
SP: Jeremy Corbyn JC: mister speaker (.) this isn’t about entertainment Chamber: ((noise and some laughter)) (2.0) JC: this is abou- Chamber: ((general noise)) (4.0) JC: this (.) this is not funny for people ((stares at chamber)) who are desperately [worried (.) Chamber: [((cheers of agreement)) JC: about what’s gonna happen next April (2.0) JC: if the prime minister won’t listen to the questions I put won’t listen to the question that are put by the public Chamber: ((general noise)) (5.0) JC: then perhaps the prime minister will listen to a question that was raised by his honourable friend ...
What these examples serve to illustrate is the negotiation that needs to take place between the current speaker and the audience even though the audience in theory does not have any rights to the floor. I would suggest that the audience here effectively acts as a participant in the conversation and in many ways is shaping the tone of the proceedings for the future. It will be interesting to see who wins out in this ‘tug of war’ between Corbyn’s subdued and serious tone and the Conservative benches more light-hearted and rowdy tone.
On another note, some commentators suggested that PMQs was taking longer because of the time Corbyn takes to negotiate with the chamber. However the pauses he makes to establish the floor are quite minimal (no more than 30 seconds overall). The pauses only take on significance because they contrast with David Cameron’s style. Any increase in length of PMQs is probably due to interventions by the Speaker or more MPs being called to ask questions.