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Articles > Politics February, 13, 2015

Why don’t politicians answer the question?

Ben Young
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The most serious breach of security in the House of Commons for a decade occurred recently. A man was arrested for hurling a bag of marbles at the screen separating the public gallery from the Commons chamber during Prime Minister’s Questions. What the media missed in covering this rather British form of parliamentary disturbance was what the man was shouting about. Various onlookers, including MP Emily Thornberry, reported that the man was shouting at the assembled MPs: “answer the bloody questions”.

Photo by Beatnik Photos

Photo by Beatnik Photos

I cannot be the only one who is increasingly sympathetic to the man’s request. Of all the catastrophic failures of political communication on display in British politics today, none is as endemic as politicians’ refusal to give a straight answer to even the simplest of questions. While clearly not a recent phenomenon, question-dodging is now completely beyond parody. As this gem of a BBC montage makes clear, rather than looking like they just don’t want to answer the question, it looks increasingly as if politicians are simply incapable of doing so.

So why don’t politicians answer the question? There are, I believe, two reasons. First, they are afraid. To give a straight answer to a difficult question is to put yourself at the mercy of a brutally unforgiving media environment. Your every word is being scrutinised by journalists, commentators and hostile party operatives from across the political spectrum.

The watching hordes might be looking for an opinion you didn’t hold six months ago. Or for a prediction they can hold against you in the future; or for a promise they know you can’t keep. They are looking for any hint that your line deviates from the party line, or worse – that you don’t know the party line. In short, they are looking for a ‘gaffe’. And thanks to the wonders of YouTube and Twitter, they have an unprecedented length of time in which to find one. Faced with this scrutiny, is it any wonder politicians conclude it is in their interests to dodge the question?

Photo by Haroldo Ferrary- COSTA FERRARI

Photo by Haroldo Ferrary- COSTA FERRARI

The second reason is that politicians don’t think people will notice. It is drummed into them by a parade of advisors and media men that the only thing that matters is message discipline. Get out your talking points, at any cost. The audience remembers what you say, not what the question was.

The problem is that the politicians are wrong, on both counts. First, we do notice when politicians don’t answer the questions. We notice even when we don’t fully understand the questions. People are in fact remarkably good at detecting when politicians are using evasive or overly complex language to “Polyfilla over the difficult bits” in an argument, as Boris Johnson – the undisputed king of political waffle – has observed.

This leads us to a second fallacy. Despite the risks outlined above, it is not in fact in politicians’ best interests to avoid answering the question. It might be rational in the short term. But here’s the problem: every time a politician fails to answer a question, everybody’s faith in politics dies a little more. How could it not? Nothing could do more to confirm our deepest suspicions about politicians.

Photo by Peter

Photo by Peter

The inevitable result of serial question-dodging is mass-disenfranchisement with politics. And when that takes hold, it is politicians who have the most to lose. It leaves them fighting for an ever-decreasing number of voters. They become beholden to the whims of extremist parties who feed off the strength of the electorate’s anger and disappointment. There is no room for mainstream politicians in such an environment.

Our politicians face what game theorists call a prisoner’s dilemma. They are in a position where when each individual acts rationally, everyone is left worse off overall. But the prisoner’s dilemma has a solution: communication. Only by cooperating to enforce a more forgiving political environment can politicians give themselves the breathing space they need to start taking questions seriously. Only when they do that will the electorate start taking them seriously as well.

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  1. Kira Jarvis

    this demonstrates (not meaning to be rude) how politicians dont think for themselves sometimes and just give ‘basic’ and ‘general’ answers, but i have seen some very good replies which have been above and behond the question asked.

  2. Sean McGhan

    I guess that answering questions is not in the politicians interest, because whom ever funds their campaigns, are likely to be corporate giants that benefit from the general public being kept ‘in the dark’ on the real agenda of the ‘funder’, politics is an expensive game with politicians needing to fund themselves by making thousands of pounds a day, and the general public do not fund these interests so why on earth would the politicians help the ‘general public’ that in no way what so ever helped their campaign except for believing the lies they read of paper provided. and the voting system is hardly a good system, in fact its a complete farce, research it. Its not economically viable that a energy company pays Joe politician millions in campaigns to get Joe in ‘power’, when the general public ask ‘Why you frakin gas under me house, America has proven it unsafe’ the politician has no real answer anyone not profiting will like ‘the energy companies pay for my lifestyle, got me in power and have secured me a future in a highly paid job with them’ is not an answer anyone wants to hear and would lose votes so they mumble about in circles avoiding answers. Stop playing games with our lives.
    The poll question should by how has the out dated proven corrupt over expense claiming house of lords not been disassembled.
    I do not know my politics that is a guess, but its nothing to do with ‘grey areas’ the mainstream idiot lantern show question time says. MONEY is the answer, if politicians want to get paid, they better dodge questions that harm their campaign, once in power new laws are created and for example now frakking gas is legal .
    unless someone can shine light on the situation

  3. akash choudhary

    every one want to make differnt thing but they dont know that the public are interseted to buy there product or not they having to much risk about own bussiness but they do for her bright futrue and get success in their there dream if they do proper manner or proper way

  4. Geena Ludhra

    On Question Time this very question was in fact answered! And they said that people want a black and white answer- when majority of things are in a grey area. Although, somehow I doubt that is a believable answer and they just don’t want to ruin their parties image and indeed become scrutinised by party members and the public for doing so.