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Dennis Skinner asked to leave the Commons - is the notion of adversarial politics a positive thing for UK democracy

Jonny Clark

11th April 2016

Firebrand Labour MP Dennis Skinner was asked to leave the House of Commons today after using unparliamentary language. He called the Prime Minister 'Dodgy Dave' in reference to his financial affairs and was asked to withdraw the remark by the Speaker John Bercow. When Skinner refused he was ordered to leave the Chamber for the rest of the day.

Adversarial politics has been a long established tradition within the UK Parliament. The system of direct and sometime bruising conflicts in a debating chamber develops when a country becomes dominated by two parties as has the UK (until more recently) with the Conservative and Labour Parties. The process is designed to give a very clear signal to the general public that there are two sides to each debate, with the incumbent Government proposing and the ‘Opposition’ providing a clear opposing viewpoint (and holding the Government to account for their decisions).

The process within the Chamber assumes that any comments or questions made by an MP are directed at the Speaker of the House, who then gives another MP (or Minister) the opportunity for reply. This ‘removal’ of a direct question/response is designed to reduce tensions and keep order.

The advantages of the adversarial process are:

  • The electorate should be clearer about where each of the main parties stand on a particular policy or view
  • Each party are able to develop a clear and coherent argument which can inform their party manifesto or political direction

The disadvantages of the adversarial process are:

  • It promotes arguments within the Chamber where there may not be any needed – the Parties may actually broadly agree on the matter being discussed but can spend a disproportionate amount of time debating minor differences
  • It can give a poorer image of the House of Commons to the general public. The arguments may seem petulant or unprofessional.

Some of the greatest ironies of the process as it has developed in the UK Parliament is that the Speaker can sometimes be prone to being equally adversarial and it promotes unpleasant comments even within parties towards their own colleagues.

Watch the drama unfold on the following question and ask yourself, is this the way you would like your policy makers to behave?

Jonny Clark

Jon Clark has been teaching economics and business studies for over 25 years primarily in the Further Education sector. Before joining tutor2u, he was a senior manager at South Cheshire College in Crewe.

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