Order! Order! Weekly parliamentary showdown turns off British voters

LONDON Tue Feb 11, 2014 3:12pm EST

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in Parliament in this still image taken from video in London September 5, 2012. REUTERS/UK Parlaliament/Pool

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in Parliament in this still image taken from video in London September 5, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/UK Parlaliament/Pool

LONDON (Reuters) - A combination of too much noisy, childish behavior and too few straight answers at the weekly parliamentary grilling of Prime Minister David Cameron is putting British voters off politics, a political research group said on Tuesday.

The green benches of the debating chamber fill to capacity every Wednesday to hear Cameron field questions from the leader of the opposition Labour party and other lawmakers in what is often a raucous, ill-tempered 30 minutes of political jousting.

Ahead of the 2015 election, the government is modernizing its voter registration system to get more people on the electoral roll and tackle a decline in the public's propensity to vote. Turnout at the last election in 2010 was 65.1 percent, well below levels above 80 percent seen during the 1950s.

Prime Ministers' Questions, known as PMQs for short, has evolved over the last 130 years into the focal point of the domestic political agenda and the segment of parliamentary debate the public are most likely to watch.

But the pugilistic weekly showcase is damaging the public's perception of Britain's political process, according to a study by the Hansard Society.

"PMQs is a cue for the public's wider perceptions of parliament," said Ruth Fox, head of research at the Hansard Society. "The public think the conduct of MPs is childish and wouldn't be tolerated in other workplaces."

The report said viewers thought politicians used cryptic language and the debates were part of an "elitist tradition" that treats them as if they were stupid. Cameron and other front-line politicians in Britain are often criticized by voters for their privileged backgrounds and education.

A poll of more than 1,200 people showed that 33 percent were turned off politics by watching PMQs.

"They think politicians are simply not taking the issues that affect their lives seriously enough," Fox said.

The survey showed just 16 percent agreed that lawmakers behaved professionally during PMQs and 67 percent of respondents said there was too much point-scoring among rival politicians and not enough straight answers. Almost half said the session was too boisterous and aggressive.

Earlier this year aides working for Labour leader Ed Miliband said he was trying to adopt a less combative style after a series of especially bad-tempered debates before Christmas.

But, the initiative seemed to gain little traction with his fellow lawmakers, with Speaker of the House - parliament's resident debate referee - John Bercow forced to intervene in the most recent session to calm both sides down.

"Order!... Members, calm yourselves: it is only just after midday, many hours of the day remain, do not destroy your systems by exploding," he bellowed on February 5, only minutes after the start of the debate.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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