Standing up and speaking in public is not just a one-way affair from speaker to audience. The reaction of the audience to what is said can be just as important and defining as the speaker’s words themselves.

This was illustrated well in the House of Commons on Wednesday at Prime Minister’s questions when Conservative backbenches cried ‘shame shame’ in unison with Theresa May’s words as she aimed her wrath at Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party.

‘Shame shame’

May was taking a question from a Conservative MP, Helen Whatley, regarding the adoption of an international definition of anti-Semitism, which the Labour party had refused to back. The question got the full backing of Conservative backbenchers in the House with ‘shouts of agreement’ in line 06 below. This is the first sign that the reaction of the audience is to be defining.

Helen Whatley
01 does my right honourable friend agree
02 that (.) all political parties
03 should adopt this definition
04 and its examples
05 without amendments or omissions
06   ((shouts of agreement))

May’s answer was then greeted with shouts of ‘shame’ when she pointed out that the Labour Party had not adopted the definition (lines 12/13).

Theresa May
07 can I say to my honourable friend
08 that I agree that all political parties
09 should do just that
10 the Conservative party has done that
11 but sadly
12 the Labour par[ty does not (.)  agree (4.0)
13               [shame      shame SHAME SHAME

External link to clip

I have transcribed the audience’s reaction in detail in 13 including the points at which it overlaps with May’s words and her pauses in 12. The reaction here is crucial since it not only provides legitimacy to May’s answer, reinforcing a political point that the Conservatives have been only too willing to exploit in the past, but it also demonstrates the power of the audience to shape and define a speaker’s words.

The first ‘shame’ is shouted out by an individual (line 13) just as May mentions the Labour party. It is then quickly echoed by others and builds into a chorus of ‘shame’ and general noise by the end of her line. May gives the audience time to react by leaving a 4-second gap before continuing with her attack.

The anger and ferocity at which ‘shame’ is shouted only yards from the opposition benches, where Jeremy Corbyn is sat watching unable to answer, gives May’s accusation more authority and legitimacy, and can encourage others outside of the House such as political commentators and party activists to take up the issue. It is well known that the headlines in the media following Prime Minister’s questions are often directed at words which prompted the greatest audience reaction.

Interruptions at PMQs

I have talked about these interruptions at PMQs before. Some of them are spontaneous reactions of the chamber through shouts of agreement or dismay, although others can be well-planned attacks by party leaders who co-opt their backbenches to react in a timely manner to their words. Examples here include the ‘yes-yes-yes’ chorus and the revealing ‘ah’.


PMQs, The House of Commons, 18th July 2018