Vitriol in society risks undermining our sense of decency – Yvette Cooper

West Yorkshire MP Yvette Cooper is chair of Parliament's Home Affairs Select Committee.West Yorkshire MP Yvette Cooper is chair of Parliament's Home Affairs Select Committee.
West Yorkshire MP Yvette Cooper is chair of Parliament's Home Affairs Select Committee. | JOHNSTON PRESS RESELL
TOO often I’ve heard people who felt strongly that we should remain blame Brexit for the rise in hatred and abuse.

ONLINE threats and abuse are on the rise, poisoning public debate. Hate crimes such as racist violence and harassment have gone up.

Yet, at our heart, I believe Britain is a country of decency, kindness and social solidarity - we have to stand up for those shared values not stand by and let them be undermined.

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It’s time we stopped blaming Brexit for the rise in hatred in our society and our politics, or using Brexit as an excuse.

Too often I’ve heard people who felt strongly that we should remain blame Brexit for the rise in hatred and abuse.

Too often I’ve heard people who felt strongly that we should leave blame the delays in Brexit for rise in hatred and abuse.

Nothing about Brexit should have made any of us, whatever our views on Britain’s future relationship with Europe, start being nastier to each other in the streets or online.

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Brexit didn’t cause the rise of anti-Semitism in the Labour party. Delays to Brexit didn’t cause the rise of Islamophobia in the Tory party. Many of us had begun warning about the increase in misogynistic abuse online here in Britain long before we had a Brexit referendum.

So it’s time we all took some responsibility for our behaviour on and offline without hiding behind the structural relationship between Britain and our European neighbours.

Time our political parties started sorting themselves out. Time for all of us to pause for breath about the way we treat each other online. We are British. Normally we are decent. We are compassionate. We are polite. When we talk to each other we are friendly. Most of the time.

The shouting matches on Twitter. The sneering abuse on Facebook. The continual accusations of betrayal and treachery, simply because others take a different view. I don’t believe this is who we really are. But it is in danger of being who we become.

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Because whilst the vitriol comes from all sides, it undermines our resilience, our sense of decency, our respect for our common humanity, our social solidarity.

These are all the things that have always been our British bulwarks against hatred or far right extremism. The dehumanising of each other that takes place too often online makes it easier for the far right to exploit and easier for those who are vulnerable to get drawn in.

Instead of undermining our resilience we should be building it up and strengthening the values, institutions and sense of common purpose that have always helped us resist the far right.

And that should come from the top. Politics should be making things better not worse. That’s why I’ve called for all parties to agree and sign up to the joint standard of conduct drawn up by the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Jo Cox Foundation.

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We should stand up for the public institutions and ways of working that promote facts, integrity, the rule of law and respect for others. And, yes, that means the independent judiciary, the independent BBC, a free press including strong local papers, a independent civil service.

And why we have to challenge the myth perpetuated by some of those right at the heart of Government (and sadly some of those in our party too) that somehow to be radical you have to be horrible, that to deliver real change you have to be prepared to bully to get it.

Of course governments can be radical – I hope to see a radical Labour government in future. Of course there will and must be robust argument, anger at injustice and determination to achieve change.

But it is quite possible to be radical and kind. It is quite possible to be fierce about change and still friendly towards others, to shake up the system and still show other human beings compassion and respect. Ambition for change doesn’t have to become aggression towards everyone else. And, indeed on the left, the kind of changes we want to see should always have kindness, compassion and respect at its heart.

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While one of the people later convicted for a threat against me was shouting outside my office, I was marking the Great Get Together with Jo Cox’s family in Birstall. Bringing together the community. Talking to your neighbours, showing kindness to strangers, going out into parks and streets up and down the country.

For all the anger and argument, we still live in a country where most of our neighbours are kind and would help you if you get into trouble. When you meet people in the street, they’re friendly, smiling and happy to chat. A country which still hates hatred.

A country where volunteers still work to help Hope not Hate stand up to extremism. All that gives us hope. Decency, kindness, friendliness and compassion in the end always drown out hatred. As Jo said: “We have more in common than that which divides us.”

Standing up for each other, regardless of race, class, where you live, who you love. Some will always seek to divide us and spread hate. That’s why we stand up for kindness and respect. For resilience and social solidarity. For hope, not hate.

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Yvette Cooper is Labour MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, and chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee. This is an edited version of a speech that she delivered to Hope Not Hate this week.

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