Conduct of Debate in Public Life - Motion to Regret

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:57 pm on 9th May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Morris of Yardley Baroness Morris of Yardley Labour 3:57 pm, 9th May 2019

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Harris for tabling this debate. It is the sort of conversation we have in the Tea Room and when we meet in corridors; it is good to hear it in the Chamber of the House, and I hope that we can take things forward from here. I also acknowledge that I have learned something and have been made to think by every speaker who has come before me in this debate. I thank your Lordships for that, because we need to do a lot of thinking if we are to find an answer to the issues we are talking about. Inevitably, at this stage of the debate I will try to add weight to certain arguments rather than bringing forward anything new.

I share everyone’s concerns about the number of MPs who have been attacked, the nature of the language, and the way some candidates think they can behave and excuse it as a joke. I do not want to concentrate much on that area of our discussion but I worry sometimes that the debate might give the impression that that behaviour is excused because other things are wrong, and it is not. Standing by themselves, those things are illegal and should not happen, the people who commit them are responsible for them, and action should be taken. Having said that, what has brought that about or allowed that to happen is wider than that and not illegal; the police will not take it up, and it is our responsibility to do something about it. When the Committee on Standards in Public Life looked at intimidation, it said:

“Intimidation also reflects broader issues with our public political culture”.

I start with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, which was where my thinking started, although I went in a slightly different direction. When I look back over the years that I have been a grown-up in politics and think about the changes that have happened in the lifetime of most people sitting here, those are things that should have strengthened democracy; they should have meant that we were a stronger representative democracy than we were when I was a child.

I think of communication, the ability to exchange ideas, to listen, to explain, to understand and to engage. All those opportunities are better now than they were 50 years ago and should have enhanced democracy. If we think of the improvements in education, more children are in education for longer, there are more qualified teachers and a better curriculum. All that should have strengthened democracy. There are genuine improvements in society. I know that it is not perfect, but I know that I have better life chances than my parents’, which are a million miles away from those of my grandparents. Nearly everything that has brought about a better life chance for me was driven by politics. There is a story to tell about how politics has benefited people over the past 30 or 40 years.

If we put that together—better communication and a better education system—there is a good story to tell about what politics can do. We should not be having this debate. We should be talking about how our democracy has improved over recent years. We have not seized those three things as a way to enhance democracy, and not doing that over the years is in part responsible for and has led to the chasm that the right reverend Prelate mentioned in which we are today.

I agree with everything that has been said about social media but, in truth, the relationship between politicians and the media has not been right for a very long time. They have had a relationship which has been about them, which does not mean anything unless it is also a relationship with the public. Over the years, in the mainstream media, with some honourable exceptions, the way that each has built up a relationship with the other has not been in the best interests of the voter, the citizen or the electorate.

For all those educational opportunities, we worry about illiteracy and people who cannot add up or multiply when they leave school. We ought to worry an awful lot more about the political illiteracy that still exists when youngsters leave our compulsory education system. We do not even have citizenship education on the curriculum any longer, let alone what my noble friend Lord Winston referred to: skills of debate and learning to grow up to be an engaged member of a democracy.

I had hoped that we might have moved from the age of deference to an age of engagement and healthy scepticism, but we have not; we have fallen into this dark place. Perhaps we can go back to think about what we are meant to be doing in politics. Essentially, politics is a battle of ideas. The need to be robust as a politician should not be to withstand onslaught from people who abuse you but to withstand people questioning and challenging your ideas and ideals.

Some of us have been in politics as a profession for years; some have come in from other areas. Over the past 40 or 50 years, every time somebody calls someone else’s idea “treacherous”, every time someone undermines someone else’s patriotism, every time we use language that abuses people rather than celebrates what they have to offer, every time we claim that something has been successful rather than explaining how we had to compromise to get it through, every time, in an interview, we fail to answer a question but continue with the lines to take and ensure that the listener hears what we want them to hear, not what they want to hear, we lose an opportunity to strengthen democracy.

In truth, we talk about Brexit and say that Brexit is toxic, but people out there are not listening to all the things we are worrying about. If we had had a strong political culture and strong foundations on which to have this Brexit debate, people would have stayed with us and listened to the argument, but it was too fragile a representative democracy, not because it will be overturned but in its ability to communicate with the electorate. That has led us into the problems we have now.

I will finish with this: people often ask me and others in this Chamber, “If you were young again, would you go into politics?”. I love politics. It has been my life. It has brought about all the changes I cherish and made them available for my family, my friends, my country and the world in which I live. I have never thought of saying that I would not go into politics again but, increasingly over the past few months, when people ask that question, I have begun to ask myself too. Representative democracy is in real crisis the minute we stop engaging and inviting other people to do the job that some of us have been doing for 50 years. It is in our power to change that and I believe that we have a contribution to make.