On the day after parliament took, in my view, the bizarre decision to junk the virtual world in favour of queueing for a kilometre to vote, I thought I would write about silence and isolation. Less the self isolation that dominates our lives, but that other facet of the ‘new normal’ the sense of speaking into the void and wondering if anyone has heard you, and if they have, did they understand what you meant?
Recent exchanges in the House of Commons at PMQs between Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer exemplify this. Despite the eerie silence of the House of Commons, they can generate considerable heat as they roll out from the chamber and across social media, government rebuttal and into our increasingly less isolated homes.
Many elements make up our political system, but the opportunity to challenge the government of the day is a cornerstone of delivering good policy and hopefully good policy outcomes. PMQs is an important part of this. But we are conditioned to see it as a bear pit where heat is as important as light. Often the message is lost or the fault line in an argument missed beneath the braying support of one party or another. Today’s PMQs, with more MPs in the chamber and more adrenaline flowing through the protagonists did nothing to dispel this view.
When PMQs takes place in near silence the dynamic changes significantly. Without the whoop of support from colleagues you are left with a simple exchange between two people. Like the German football matches currently being conducted in empty stadiums – there is something missing, and partisan supporters are just as important in Westminster as in the Bundesliga. There’s no instant reaction, no chance to lift your side or influence the officials. Those taking part can only imagine the reactions and emotions they are generating. They don’t know if they are winning or losing in the eyes of the viewer.
But as the aftermath of PMQs showed, excitement is being generated through the power of ideas being explored, questioned and challenged. Words and questions clearly spoken without interruption and received by wider audiences without a background of intense sound or the impact of physical supporters egging the protagonists on and nodding violently in agreement with all they say.
The challenge to communications professionals and all communicators during Covid remains as ever – to prepare, to have a clear strategy and to get the messaging right. But although it’s not to everyone’s taste, I think the silence of isolation particularly at occasions like PMQs can mean that what is actually said takes on greater importance. The decision to return more MPs to Parliament will help us test that hypothesis in real time.
Tim Read is a director at Camargue