My Lords, when I was a student I used to play in curtain-raiser rugby league matches for the local team. We got a bit of money to cover our expenses, but this was docked for bad behaviour. Bad behaviour was “playing the man, not the ball”. I do not wish to trivialise this subject, but I was reminded of this when my noble friend introduced the debate—on which I congratulate him—because it is playing the man, not the ball that introduces toxicity into public life.
You do not have to be a visitor to the United States to be appalled at the way the President has made personal insults a firm substitute for political argument—the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, mentioned this. Of course, because it comes from the President, this practice is legitimised and copied. As the Guardian pointed out, we had a good example of this here recently, when Greta Thunberg came from Sweden. Instead of dealing with her arguments and evidence, many commentators just called her weird, privileged, inexperienced or irrelevant. It is this disparaging of a person, rather than dealing with the argument or the evidence, that is one of the causes of toxicity in our public life.
As my noble friend Lord Harris and others have explained, social media thrives on this. Social media platforms are set up to reward people’s engagement: people are encouraged to feed off each other in a continuous cycle which enables the amassing of data. This data then enables people to target microgroups with messages that nobody else sees—angry messages of an extreme nature that would otherwise never be published—all adding to toxicity. The internet is a wonderful medium for knowledge and information, but as the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, and other noble Lords have said, paradoxically, it has degraded debate.
What can we do about this anger and frustration? This tendency towards extremism has been apparent for some years. Like my noble friend Lord Parekh, I think it is due to rising inequality: in wealth, income and the standard of living, as well as regional inequality. My noble friend told us in his introduction of a poll that found that 82% of the public now feels that the country is more divided than ever. A cause of this inequality is the hollowing out of the economic middle. At the same time, we have a polarisation of the generations, as shown by the FCA study, and the unfairness of the generation divide, as shown by your Lordships’ own Select Committee. This hollowing out and polarisation is not the inevitable result of automation and new technology but the result of bad government and bad management—economic and social. Much of this automation is taking place without increases in productivity, resulting in unequal distribution of the benefits. If we do not do anything about it, new artificial intelligence and robotics will continue the process and widen the gap even more. This hollowing out of the economy is a direct cause of the hollowing out of our politics, somehow legitimising extreme views and language. As somebody famous said, bad economics always result in bad politics.
Yes, there are efforts in reskilling, apprenticeships and lifelong learning, and there is a minimum wage, but it is not working. The “just about managing”, who so concerned the Prime Minister when she came to office, are still there. Reports from various welfare charities, food banks and the children’s organisations that support the “just about managing” tell us that their number is increasing rapidly.
The problem that my noble friend has set us is about turning round society, and part of that turnaround is economic—economic reform that stops the hollowing out and produces a more equal distribution of wealth and of income so that all of us feel included. Public services are part of this turnaround. Hardly a day goes by without reports of the impact that austerity is having on our public services, particularly those provided by local authorities, which have had cuts to their grants of 30% to 40%. The cumulative effect of all of this—a political choice, not an economic one—has been to increase inequality. In this turnaround, citizenship and identity matter. After all, we are a community of citizens. As part of this turnaround, let us clearly define what is owed to and expected from each citizen. Add this to less inequality and we will have a more sustainable and successful democracy.