Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Rennard Question: can internal division be avoided?

It seems that the Lib Dems have entered into a civil war.

This, naturally, is not unusual for political parties. Labour had their own internal battle over the repeal of Clause 4. The Conservatives fight among themselves over such matters as marriage equality and Europe. We Lib Dems tend not to do things as others do, but sadly the previous few days have witnessed a regrettable descent into what could well develop into a fully-fledged conflict, with the potential to damage both long-term relationships and the reputation of the party.

I never took us for being a party that would end up so divided over something like this. I am so depressed at how this is being managed and the potentially significant damage being done by both "sides" to the party. On the one had there are those who have already pre-judged Rennard as guilty of the worst of the accusations leveled against him; on the other those who, on the basis of his reputation and standing, believe him to be entirely innocent irrespective of the fact that this has to date been far from proven.

At the very least, this saga has developed into an undignified spat. This morning Lord Carlile used the Sunday Mail, of all papers, to compare Nick Clegg with Thomas Cromwell, Kim Jong Un and Henry VIII. The other "side", inevitably, hit back. Does any of this help?

Worse still tonight was an example of how tribalistic loyalties have a tendency to undermine the substantive issues - in this case the need to tackle all forms of harassment. North West MEP, in defence of Rennard, said in an interview that "this is touching someone’s leg through clothing...the equivalent of an Italian man pinching a woman’s bottom". It defies belief. There have been other such ill-considered comments, but I would have expected more of Davies.

The reality is that we simply have had no idea how do deal with this kind of issue, and that in itself has led to the current predicament. It's all immensely painful to watch. At least when the Tories are divided and indulge in petty trench warfare, it's on something we can all laugh about. This is more serious. It underlines our failings as an organisation and it isn't only Chris Rennard who should be apologising.

To summarise the complicated saga in a few words, the party has to date failed everyone concerned.

I have personally been the recipient of unwanted sexual advances from a Lib Dem parliamentarian, and gave evidence to the Morrissey inquiry on this. I also cited another male who had similarly been propositioned. I accept that sexual harassment is serious, that it must be challenged and that the culture of how we work as a party to eradicate it must change urgently. But I also have witnessed other forms of harassment, which have equally harmful psychological and emotional effects, which it would seem are more acceptable in a liberal and democratic party in the 21st century. When myself and others have been the recipients of unwanted harassment and bullying by someone who is even now using the Rennard issue as a means of masquerading as a moral crusader against harassment, it is more than ironic.

The Liberal Democrats have something of a history. We came out of the "Paddy Pantsdown" scandal relatively unscathed although failed to learn the lessons, and seemed to have no idea how to deal with revelations surrounding Mark Oaten and Simon Hughes. Consequently, when the accusations surrounding Rennard came to light the party was paralysed with indecision and lacking the kinds of advanced and professional internal processes other employers use effectively in such situations. The real issue here is not Chris Rennard, as much as many want it to be - it is the need for an admission of collective and organisational failure.

What we must do in situations like this is remember we are a liberal party. We must behave in a liberal way, consistent with our liberal values. Currently, it looks as if even the most basic liberal tenets of pluralism and tolerance have given way to mistrust, suspicion and inflexibility. Not to mention judgmental attitudes and no small amount of pseudo-liberal angst.

Caron Lindsay wrote today on her blog, asking how is the party going to get through this. It's a good question (and Caron's piece is well worth reading), but the answers are far from certain. To me it seems increasingly unlikely, given the intransigence of all involved, that there is any way out of this without one side losing face entirely. The battle lines have been drawn. No-one is willing to concede an inch. The only thing we can be sure of is that this will become even more messy. I can only hope when the two sides blow themselves to bits with their metaphorical cannon, that there will be sufficient of us left to pick up the pieces. We need to grasp the inescapable truth that this internecine strife will do serious, and in some respects irreversible, damage to the Liberal Democrats and what we represent as a party. This is not something I say either lightly or with any sense of satisfaction, but unless some attempts at a ceasefire are attempted I can see no alternative outcome. It is utterly depressing to see friends pitted against other friends, especially when the pending self-destruction is - even now - far from inevitable if reason prevails.

I know what I think about Chris Rennard, and what he should do. I also know what I don't know. I don't wish to hear anything further about this, unless it is from someone who has carefully considered all of the evidence and has a trained legal mind. However, I am more than aware that that remains as likely as Morton winning the Champions League and therefore I will reduce my appeal simply to a request for sober minds and tolerance. How we proceed in the coming days and weeks will say a lot more about the type of party we are than how the leadership has historically handled the accusations themselves.

Only by the triumph of genuine liberal values can an unnecessarily calamitous civil war be avoided. I retain the belief that liberalism would be an excellent philosophy, if only more people had the courage to put it into practice.

1 comment:

neil craig said...

As someone expelled from the "LibDems" on a charge that being an economic liberal is "incompatible with party membership" I find it interesting to see what is compatible with it.

In the normal way of "LD" bloggers I assume this comment will be censored.