then I wasn’t watching anymore

Politics I watched. I watched until half six in the evening, then I wasn’t watching anymore. The House of Commons session is still going on as I write but I wonder how many people are watching. Setting myself the task of watching a whole random day’s worth of proceedings was a taller order than I’d been expecting because, as it turns out, the fragments we hear on The Day in Parliament or see on the news usually are the highlights, the Match of the Day of politics. And as with the average football match there are huge swaths of inactivity, ritual and regulation and in this case points of order.

Mainly I discovered that the main thrust of government does not happen in the chamber. The chamber is the place for statements and announcements. All of the big decision making happens behind closed doors or in smaller committee rooms. What we see in the chamber is MPs of all colours motion going, setting out their stall, presenting their case to closed ears and hardened minds. I did see cabinet ministers promising to look into individual cases offered up by backbenchers but in the main the “action” amounted to:
1) Government minister makes statement about a subject, policy, whatever. All cats should be shaved. Dogs can look up.

2) Opposition minister vehemently and viciously disagrees with whatever government minister said. All cats shouldn't be shaved. Dogs can't look up.

3) Government minister condescendingly disagrees with what the opposition said, often flustered, sometimes spluttering, very angry. All cats really should be shaved. Dogs really can look up. Listen to what I’m saying.

4) The rest of the house have a free for all generally repeating whatever their respective minister originally said with more context to the point that sometimes they lose sight of what the real issue is. Dogs shouldn’t be shaved. Cats can look up. Or is it ... ?
This was the pattern when Ed Balls made his statement regarding the appointment of Dr Margaret (Maggie) Atkinson as Children’s Commissioner and Bob Ainsworth’s statement about military procurement. That even decended into what sounded like the ministers debating whether there should be something called the “Santa’s procurement wish list” which is about as ironic and hateful way of describing the subject of buying arms as I think you’re likely to see.

Earlier in the day, during Work and Pension Questions with Yvette Cooper, I saw that the habit that we the people find so tedious on television and radio and in the papers of a minister not being able to answer a straight question happens just as frequently in the house. The same one size fits all kind of answers to questions echo about the half empty chamber time and again.

One Labour MP asked why a constituent of his wasn't getting Jobseeker's whilst waiting to start course and if that policy and rules could be sorted out so that someone who's doing everything that's expected of them won't starve (I'm paraphrasing). Cooper said she’d look at that case and then took the opportunity to parrot out a line we’d already heard about getting young people training to see them back into work, totally bypassing the issue he’d asked about.

The part of the session that finally left me by the side of the road was Conservative debate on economic recovery and welfare. Begun by Ken Clarke, who gave a very long speech filled as many derivations as a Ronnie Corbett anecdote, it soon descended into back biting between him and Frank Dobson about something which was happening fifteen years ago.

It was also a very strange sort of debate. When I was at school, a debate was about offering each side of an argument or point of order then making a considered choice on what you believe. In the chamber it’s fairly apparent that the MPs already know how they’re going to vote as they take their seat. All of the chat seems to be for the benefit of the record, to give Hansard something print up.

But the real problem was I didn’t understand most of anything which was being said, at least not at the rapidity with which they were saying it. It reminded me of the time I was invited to the pub with someone else’s friends and they spent the night sharing in jokes and stories and I didn’t feel included. I felt like I would need a degree in politics to understand much of the jargon being thrown about here.

My plan had been to offer commentary on what I was hearing on Twitter. As you can see from the feed, I tried, but in the end I was reduced to making jokes (as usual) and talking about the process rather than the substance. If anything the main thing I’ve learned is that the journalists and commentators, the Nick Robinsons and Michael Whites, don’t just report politics, they translate it so that cloth brainers like me can understand it.

Yet I’m sure that if this had been a different day my experience might have been different. If I’d had more context, my experience would have been different. If Ken Clarke hadn’t been one of the speakers, my … you get the idea. I also imagine that the chamber can still be electric on the very historic occasions, when the chamber is full and big decisions are being made. That just wasn’t today. Or at least this afternoon ...

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