Conduct of Debate in Public Life - Motion to Regret

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:31 pm on 9th May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Liddle Lord Liddle Labour 3:31 pm, 9th May 2019

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Harris on organising this debate and on his outstanding introduction to the issues. What made me decide to speak was the fact that I had had a pretty rough time on the doorstep in the local elections running up to 2 May. I have done a lot of this in my life, for getting on for 55 years. I know what the voters are like; some people slam the door in your face and others say, “Oh, you’re all the same. You’re only in it for yourselves”. But I sensed that there was a much more aggressive tone towards politicians in this set of elections than I had ever seen before—and Wigton has such a nice local community.

I think that it is a direct consequence of the 2016 referendum. People feel that they were offered a clear choice: in or out. They just cannot understand why “out” has not happened, given that they voted for it. What the bitterness on the doorstep brought home to me was the great risk involved in going down this road of direct democracy, offering people simple choices when issues are becoming ever more complex as time goes on. Part of the answer to these problems is to restore faith in representative democracy, and I will make four points about how we try to do that.

The first point is one with which I know a lot of colleagues on my side of the House will not agree, but it is a view that I have held for a long time: namely, that if we had electoral reform and a system of proportional representation, it would lead to a wider representation of views in Parliament. I cannot stand Nigel Farage’s views, but he represents a sufficient group of people for his party to be in Parliament. The main political parties have ceased to be effective vehicles for representing a much more fragmented nation. That is true of the Conservative Party, which is bitterly split between nationalist populists and the traditional one-nation and pro-business Conservatives. It is arguably true of the Labour Party as well. So I favour electoral reform, which would bring a wider range of views into Parliament and force on our political system a culture of compromise. That is what the post-war Federal Republic of Germany is so good at. When we see the shouting match of Prime Minister’s Questions, the contrast with the political culture of the Federal Republic could not be greater.

Secondly, we have to foster more political education and debate in society. That should start in schools. I am very keen on Gordon Brown’s ideas for citizens’ assemblies, which have been shown to work in getting people to understand some of the complexities that we face. The way in which the Irish handled their second referendum on the Lisbon treaty in 2009 was a model of how to involve people in a proper debate about the issues that is not extreme and polarising.

Thirdly, we need reform of the media, on which I will make two points. First, social media companies have to accept much greater responsibility for rooting out unacceptable language from their platforms. That should become a legal obligation. Secondly, we had a wonderful Speaker’s Lecture from Tony Hall—the noble Lord, Lord Hall of Birkenhead—as director-general of the BBC, in which he spoke about the BBC’s mission to counter fake news and to put news as its top priority. This will not happen unless we stop trying to use the BBC as a social security policy to help over-75 year-olds with the cost of their licence fee and fund it properly to do the job that it should be doing in promoting objectivity and debate. I shall stand up for the BBC. I know that some of my colleagues and closest friends attack the way in which it behaves, but I do not support that.

Fourthly, we have a responsibility to provide political leadership. I am not satisfied that in the Labour Party, for instance, we have taken the necessary steps to deal with anti-Semites. The leadership has not defended Members of Parliament who have come under vicious attack. This is not good enough and it has to change.