Conduct of Debate in Public Life - Motion to Regret

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:20 pm on 9th May 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Harris of Haringey Lord Harris of Haringey Labour 2:20 pm, 9th May 2019

My Lords, we all remember where we were when we heard the shocking, shattering news that our parliamentary colleague Jo Cox had been murdered in her constituency. We packed into this Chamber a few days later to pay tribute to her and pledge that politics would be different, less confrontational and more respectful and also, to use her words, focus on the fact that we know we have more in common that unites us than divides us.

Sadly, nearly three years on, little has changed. If anything, our politics is even more divisive and fractured than it was then. Indeed, the number of threats to MPs has rocketed. According to revised figures given yesterday by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, 151 offences against MPs were recorded in 2017, doubling to 342 in 2018, with 152 crimes against MPs and more than 600 incidents already recorded this year. The Local Government Association reports that councillors are also facing similar levels of harassment, threats and intimidation, so much so as to have an impact on people putting themselves forward for election.

I know of MPs who have been advised by the police that, for their own safety, they must not use any form of public transport. Others have had to scrap public surgeries—again, on police advice. Death threats are frequent. Rape threats against women politicians have become commonplace, with those making them now standing for public office. Homes and offices are attacked and constituency staff intimidated, so much so that some MPs are now limiting what they say on certain issues.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission, in its evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said that,

“the tone of modern political discourse permeates through society and normalises abusive and occasionally aggressive language when discussing politics”.

Only six weeks ago, the noble Lord, Lord Evans, who unfortunately is not in his place today, warned that intimidation and abuse of MPs and other people in public life has become worse in the current political climate. He said that it was not just a Brexit-related issue, although that had made things particularly acute. Just before Easter, the noble Lord, Lord Bates, stood down as a Minister of State, saying that there was a need to restore our national unity and to rediscover the common ground that we share as a nation. The reason he is not in his place today is that his solution is to walk from Belfast to Brussels. However one might view whether that is the most productive way of making progress on these issues, there is no question that he is raising and highlighting valid issues. Two weeks ago, a poll commissioned by the Daily Mirror found that 82% of people—that is, more than four in five—feel that our country is divided and 76% think that the country is more divided than ever before. What is worse, 79% of the public have lost faith in British politics.

So why is our politics in this state? This is not simply about Brexit and the legacy of the vote on 23 June 2016, although it is true that the very nature of referendums means that complex issues are turned into a simplistic yes/no division, and that inevitably leads to a polarisation in society when the issues themselves are contentious. Moreover, referendums certainly undermine the principle of a deliberative democracy, where the public elect representatives to Parliament to exercise their judgment as to what is best for society as a whole.

There is no doubt that polarisation can lead to more and more extreme viewpoints being expressed and a focus, increasingly personalised, on those who might take a contradictory view. That was the case during the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, when there were outbreaks of indyref violence at football matches and elsewhere, and vicious online intimidation. The EU referendum two years later saw a similar pattern of increasingly bitter debate and more and more personalised attacks, and, just a few days before the referendum, the dreadful murder of Jo Cox. Interestingly, the referendum on the alternative vote did not have the same effect, perhaps because so few people had strong views on the subject or even cared either way.

However, the process of polarisation has continued and, indeed, deepened and intensified in the last three years, not just about Brexit but about all sorts of other matters. One has only to think, for example, about the discussion on trans rights and how vitriolic that has become. This is not just a British phenomenon. A few days ago, the President of Germany gave an impassioned speech about the impact of political debates on social media that, he said, so often tend to be toxic.

Is this a consequence of the advent of social media? That, too, is simplistic. I have no doubt that similar concerns were expressed about the advent of the printing press and the scurrilous contributions to political debate permitted by that dangerous invention, which enabled all those views to be more widely disseminated. However, social media has taken it to a new level. Short-form communications necessarily lead to simplification. Competing to be heard requires more extreme and eye-catching formulations. It is a medium that is, above all, automatically delivered into our hands, and the ability to be anonymous absolves the poster of responsibility.

The echo-chamber effect means that we will tend to hear only the views of those with whom we agree and contrary views will be less likely to reach us. This is made worse by the presence of fake news. Research shows that the more eye-catching and the more extreme the lie, the more likely it is to be shared. Clickbait is there to drive business to a site, and people are more likely to click the more dramatic the message.

The algorithms of the internet sites serve up to us more of the same and lead us into further and often harder-line variants. Guillaume Chaslot, a former programmer for YouTube designing its algorithms, has said that the site in practice encourages the most extreme and divisive content because that is what drives the most traffic. According to him, conspiracy theory content was a particularly effective way to increase “watch time”, so the algorithms recommend other conspiracy videos billions of times over.

Then you have the information warfare promoted by some state actors. The premise is simple: the more you doubt, the less you trust. If you can undermine faith in democratic states and their structures, that is a gain for such Governments. If you are Russia, a Ukraine that becomes part of NATO is a threat. So too is a stronger EU. To weaken NATO, to weaken the EU and to undermine the legitimacy of democracy becomes an objective. This is set out in the 2010 military doctrine of the Russian Federation, where the aim is,

“to achieve political objectives without the utilisation of military force”. by seeking to plant seeds of doubt and distrust, to confuse, distract, polarise and demoralise. But what the Russians, and no doubt other states, do and sponsor does not absolve any of us from a responsibility, first, to be aware of that background and, secondly, to confront and address what is happening.

A lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on—a comment variously attributed to Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift or even Winston Churchill. Who said it first does not really matter. The central message is clear: lies must be confronted early, quickly and authoritatively. So too must extremism. This applies whether it is on the internet, on conventional media or on the streets. So if we are concerned about the increasing toxicity of our public discourse, we must all take responsibility both for not propagating it and for not normalising it—for not condoning it and for combating it wherever it occurs.

A failure to do so does not bode well for the health of our democracy. Certainly, a weakened centre and an increasingly polarised politics give legitimacy to more extreme views. In the context of extremism becoming violent extremism, violent extremists often have a narrative of victimhood which they use to persuade others to follow them. Such a narrative provides a simple, ready-made alternative to complex problems. It provides a would-be extremist thug, as it were, with an alternative to a life of perceived discrimination and a lack of self-worth—offering them instead an opportunity, by becoming a violent and destructive extremist, to star as the hero in their own favourite movie.

Different ends of the extremist spectrum have a symbiotic relationship with each other. If there is an incidence of violence against one group, that reinforces the group’s narrative of victimhood. It may reinforce its message to more moderate elements who share some of the same outlook. The actions of one incite the other, which then incites the first. This is exacerbated if those in public life—politicians and commentators especially—fail to confront and answer extremist arguments. Indeed, to ignore is to condone. Worse still is to echo and pander to such views.

As Policy Exchange pointed out at the end of last year, language that brands opponents as “traitors”, “Nazis” or “enemies of the people”, or ascribes madness or stupidity to those with alternative views, is hardly helpful. I suspect that, if we were all to search our consciences, we could think of occasions when perhaps we have called those we have disagreed with stupid or even mentally ill. That is something we should all stop because it does not help.

A failure to talk meaningfully about, for example, the impact of immigration on our economy and society is one step away from legitimising the stirring up of hatred against migrants and asylum seekers. Ignoring a problem allows extremists to own it. Demonising one minority leads to the isolation and exclusion of other minorities—a slippery path that has led elsewhere to pogroms and genocide. Let us remember how quickly norms broke down in Kosovo and Rwanda. True political leadership is not about following the basest instincts of those whose support you seek. Instead, it should be about educating, persuading and inspiring. It is about confronting intolerance and calling out the bigots. It is about answering the extremists and contesting their views.

A first step in this country is for our political parties to put their own houses in order. It is shameful that the Labour Party is likely to be the subject of a formal investigation by the EHRC into its institutional racism. It is long overdue for us as a party to end the denial and prevarication so as to eliminate the stench of anti-Semitism emanating from some in senior positions within our ranks. Similarly, the Conservatives must take effective action against those in their ranks who are bigoted against Muslims. Only then can either party claim the moral authority to address the wider problems in society.

The Government’s role must be to combat extremism both by confronting its expression and by addressing the underlying issues that lead to the alienation breeding extremism in the first place. The Government have acknowledged that they have a role—I welcome that—in respect of what is happening on social media. The White Paper on online harms is a useful step in requiring online providers to take some responsibility for what takes place on their platforms. Imposing a duty of care on them will help, but let us not delude ourselves: it is not sufficient. And where is the counterpart for the more traditional media? Should they too not have a duty of care to their readers and viewers? Surely they should have a responsibility not to legitimise or normalise extremism, prejudice or hatred. How can they be incentivised to move away from a sensationalism that mirrors the prejudices of their readers? Where is the strategy to combat fake news, intimidation and misinformation? The Swedish Government have produced a handbook on countering what they call “information influence activities”, which is, in essence, a toolkit for public agencies. Where is the UK equivalent? How are we equipping our citizens and, above all, educating our young people to recognise fake news and reject extremist ideology?

Here, the Government have set up the Commission for Countering Extremism which, despite some interesting pieces of work, is still largely silent. Where is the work on the school curriculum to get children to seek out real facts and real news? What are we doing to equip our young people with critical thinking skills to identify manipulative language and distorted facts, and give them the courage to question everything and everyone? We can no longer simply tut about the toxicity that is now rife in our public debate and discourse. We have to accept that toxicity is corrosive, and not only to the quality of that debate and to the achievement of rational policy; it also undermines the very foundations of our democracy.

This is a responsibility not just for the Government, political parties or media companies but for all of us in public life. It requires an understanding of why so many feel alienated from our current politics, and the addressing of the underlying causes that feed and breed that alienation. Let us not delude ourselves: democracy is a fragile flower. Our institutions may too easily turn out to have foundations based on sand, and the so-called civilised values on which we pride ourselves may turn out to be as transitory as a summer’s day. Ultimately, we all have a responsibility to defend the core values that have shaped our country over the last 75 years. Failure to do so will see the very fabric of our democracy wither and decay. It is a challenge we must not shirk. I beg to move.