UK Labour's Corbyn brings new style to PM debate

16th September 2015, Comments 0 comments

Newly elected British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on Wednesday engaged with David Cameron for the first time, bringing a low-key style to the usually raucous weekly showdown of Prime Minister's Questions.

The radical left-winger, whose refusal to sing "God Save the Queen" drew ire from the right-wing press, broke with convention and selected his six questions from the public having "crowd sourced" ideas online.

Questions from "Angela", "Steven", "Gail", "Marie", "Paul" and "Claire" dealt mainly with the provision of affordable housing and welfare cuts, hinting at the issues that will form the basis of his opposition.

The spectacle was far from the cut and thrust of previous Cameron grillings by Corbyn's predecessor Ed Miliband, and the cheers and jeers from opposing sides of the House of Commons were less audible than before.

Corbyn's subdued style even stood out in the way he was dressed -- his brown jacket and dark trousers contrasting with the dark-blue suits preferred by many MPs including the prime minister himself.

"I want things to be rather different because I think the public as a whole have had enough of 'yah-boo sucks' politics, theatrical politics," the 66-year-old socialist said before the debate.

Cameron welcomed the call for a more orderly debate and was noticeably less blustery than before.

"If we are able to change PMQs and make it a more genuine exercise... no one would be more delighted than me," he said.

He even turned the tables on Labour MPs when they heckled one of his answers, saying "I thought this was the 'new question time'."

All eyes were on the new Labour leader, a formerly obscure MP and pacifist campaigner, following his landslide victory on Saturday and eventful first few days.

Political observers were watching to see how he matched up against the prime minister in the bear pit of "PMQs" and for clues to his leadership style.

He was praised for setting the scene for an unusually civil debate and for engaging the public, with more than 40,000 responses to his request for questions.

"Maybe in the long run he will be able to introduce a new culture to the debate," said Nick Turnbull, lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester.

"It's a great idea," he said of the public questions. "Introducing the citizens' voice directly, you simply can't insult them. It makes it a very different style of event.

"It also works strategically for him because he is not a combative guy, he is not going to win against David Cameron or George Osborne. They'll demolish him personally."

- 'Snub to queen' -

But others likened the debate to a local radio phone-in and said the mood was too relaxed to threaten Cameron.

"If he wanted to create a different atmosphere, he certainly did that," said the BBC's Norman Smith. "But he didn't put Cameron under any pressure."

Corbyn has had a rollercoaster first few days in charge.

His choice of shadow cabinet was initially criticised for not including enough women in senior roles, and even his own party questioned the appointment of far-left ally John McDonnell in the key role as shadow finance minister.

The pacifist and republican also came under fire after he declined to sing the national anthem at a service for veterans of World War II in London on Tuesday.

Centre-right publications The Sun and Daily Telegraph both ran with front-page headline "Corbyn snubs the Queen" while the Times splashed "Veterans open fire after Corbyn snubs anthem" across its front page.

"He delighted a few thousand giggling Twitter users -- and alienated millions of voters," said the Sun's editorial.

But Corbyn said Wednesday he was maintaining a respectful silence and refused to say whether he would sing the anthem at future events.

"I will be at many events and I will take part fully in those events. I don't see a problem about this."


© 2015 AFP

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