Conduct of Debate in Public Life - Motion to Regret

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:16 pm on 9th May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 4:16 pm, 9th May 2019

A non-partisan plea from someone who has attacked every party except the Lib Dems—you could not make it up. I am sorry; I said I would resist doing that, but it was just too much of an open goal. Apologies.

My Lords, I also thank my noble friend Lord Harris for tabling this timely—indeed, all too topical—debate. It is sad that we need it but, as he said, we need to detoxify political debate and to heal divisions being fostered within society. The dual contributions from our Bishops were noteworthy—I was about to say “interesting” but, having heard from my noble friend Lord Winston, I think “noteworthy” is a better word to use—but when the churches witness the depth and effect of what is going on, I think we should take heed. Acknowledging the scale of the problem is a necessary start to addressing it.

As we have heard, evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life put it starkly:

“The tone of modern political discourse permeates through society and normalises abusive and … aggressive language”.

As my noble friend Lord Harris said, the Met Police chief revealed that abuse of MPs is hitting unprecedented levels, with near-daily reports of crimes. It is not just MPs, as he also said. Our brilliant—and mostly unpaid and unsung—local councillors are in the firing line too, with worrying long-term consequences. If fewer start a political career there in local government because of abuse, our pool of talent and experience, from which we draw future MPs and Ministers, diminishes.

Perhaps more than this is what this toxicity means for our democratic systems and assumptions. A Daily Mirror poll showed that three-quarters of the public feel that the country is more divided than ever before, with four in five having lost faith in British politics. This arises from more than just the tenor of debate, of course, but our very language, the lack of respect for the other and simplistic promises of quick fixes for complex problems—described by my noble friend Lord Liddle—all diminish trust in the political class. Both sides lose: the politicians and their families at the receiving end of some of the vilest material I have seen, but also the public, for whom a stable political world—albeit with its democratic swings between parties—forms part of the comfort blanket of our “common life”; I think those were the words used by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester.

Political parties of left or right, which strive to represent their communities, heed problems, find solutions and act with honesty and integrity, are part of the fabric of life that gives people some grip over their futures, a say in how they are governed, some shared values and an understanding of how things can change. Politics has, as my noble friend Lady Morris said, improved life immensely and should have strengthened democracy.

However, of late we have witnessed, from activists seeking votes as well as from anonymous, unaccountable bloggers, in addition to the evidence-free assertions mentioned by my noble friend Lord Winston, a level of abuse, vehemence and spite that has undermined faith in politicians. That is the “danger to our democracy” in the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds.

As we have heard, female politicians are more often the target, with vile misogyny and sexual aggression displayed in horrific detail. For ethnic minority targets, the abuse is similarly distasteful, alarming and shocking, with particular fears for our Jewish community with its echoes of earlier and, we had thought, long-forgotten pogroms, or Kristallnacht, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Puttnam, whose film “Swastika” I recommend.

It behoves all of us—activists, Governments, parties, faith bodies, broadcasters, press and social media companies as well as schools and universities—to face up to what is happening to public discourse, and examine our own role in it, even if it is simply by turning a blind eye or doubting its scale, and to prioritise action to end the harm. As my noble friend Lord Haskel reminded us, this is not just about what is said, but why it is said. What causes these feelings of alienation, of being dispossessed or marginalised? My noble friend Lord Parekh identified inequality. For my noble friend Lord Haskel, the hollowing out of the economy is a direct cause of the hollowing out of our politics and we will need a more equal distribution of wealth and of income so that people feel included. On this, we look to the Government to act.

More widely, though, on the question of language and tone, as my noble friend Lord Harris said, we must start by putting our own House and political parties in order—a plea with which I concur. More is needed from all of us. We should look to the Government to take a lead and use their influence whether over education, electoral law, the BBC, company regulations in the digital world, police training or myriad other ways to get every part of our life to face up to the challenge facing us. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, quoted from A Tale of Two Cities, which is how this country sometimes feels. But I think of the longer quote:

“it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness”.

How well that former Hansard writer, Charles Dickens, somehow understood our century.

My noble friend Lord Harris reminded us how we all vowed “never again” after Jo Cox’s tragic death. But it will be never again only if each of us is willing to play our part in putting an end to the corrosive atmosphere that has invaded the political sphere. On that, I am sure, the whole House would concur.