Do wealth and connections buy influence in the Lib Dems?

Luisa Porritt and Geeta Sidhu Robb
(Photo: PoliticsHome)

In July the Lib Dem candidate for London Mayor, Siobhan Benita, stepped down citing concerns about her voluntary responsibilities in the role making it "very difficult to combine other work". 

This alone raises questions about what we expect from our candidates and how those of us without financial means can become candidates in target seats - or even non-target but high profile electoral races such as that for Mayor of London. 

The situation has developed significantly in the weeks since. Last week, it was announced that the party had drawn up a shortlist of two potential candidates to succeed Ms Benita - former MEP Luisa Porritt and millionaire businesswoman and board member of Open Britain, Geeta Sidhu Robb. 

Most of us outside London had never heard of the latter. However, in the last week we've discovered a little more about her. She has made previous comments about her son's alleged allergic reaction to vaccines, which prompted a Lib Dem PPC to complain about her "ridiculous and dangerous views on vaccinations and modern medicine". As the owner of a health good business, Nosh Detox, which champions detox diets, she appears to have promoted food as an alternative to medicine.  She appeared in a reality TV show last year in which she described leaving Chelsea as an "edgy" experience, refused to drink tap water and didn't appear to know how to use a can opener. So not exactly the kind of person likely to appeal to voters living in areas such as... well, anywhere outside of Chelsea. 

But worse was to follow. It's also been revealed that in 1997, when the Conservative candidate for Blackburn, Ms Sidhu Robb delivered an "antisemitic tirade" urging voters not to vote for Jack Straw: "Don't vote for a Jew. Jack Straw is a Jew". He isn't actually - he's simply of Jewish heritage - but that's not the issue. The Lib Dems appear to have promoted someone who not only holds uncomfortably unscientific perspectives but has unashamedly used anti-Semitism as a political tactic. 

It should perhaps be mentioned that the party received only three applications to replace Ms Benita - a problem in itself. But this situation also makes it clear that the party's vetting processes are woefully deficient. The failure of the party's processes to provide proper scrutiny has resulted, inevitably, in an embarrassing outcome that was entirely avoidable.

While concerned at such failures, I think it's necessary to accept that all parties have had their problems in this respect. What seems to be different about the Lib Dems and Ms Sidhu Robb isn't the inability carry out background checks on its candidates, but that - far more dangerously - the candidate in question was deliberately approached and encouraged to run because of her wealth. 

City AM has reported that she was "parachuted into the contest without extensive vetting in the hope she could potentially bring in vast amounts of donations and exclusive voter data to the party". This is altogether more concerning than mere administrative incompetence. 

The news outlet claims that unnamed "Liberal Democrat insiders" have alleged that "Sidhu-Robb was chosen for the party’s shortlist for her potential to inject the party with sorely needed funding, meaning she effectively 'bought her way in'. They wanted her to be a candidate so she could bring in money and wealthy connections, but there wasn’t proper scrutiny of her." It is also alleged that Ms Sidhu Robb was shortlisted "due to a perception that she may have had access to extensive campaign data owned by Open Britain and used by Democracy Unleashed" - something that, if true, implies levels of unprofessionalism that are willing to ignore GDPR regulations. 

This essentially amounts to buying influence - if not the candidature itself, then certainly a place on a shortlist. If true, tt reveals something deeply undemocratic at the heart of our party's internal working. A culture of promoting those with significant personal wealth and connections, and of failing to fully screen such candidates, is completely unacceptable in a party that claims to support social mobility and open democracy.

City AM reports that "a
 source at the Liberal Democrats’ headquarters denied any candidates had ever been chosen on the basis of their fundraising potential, adding that Siddhu-Robb had been vetted by the party’s London office and not its national office." It's absolutely right that the regions should have responsibility for candidate assessment, but that actually renders HQ's categorical denial irrelevant. How can HQ possibly comment on what the motivations of the London party might be? How can we be certain that the allegations are false? 

I know very little about the London party, but it is quite clear that losing a candidate of Siobhan Benita's calibre (she confirmed last week that not only has she resigned as mayoral candidate but also her membership of the Liberal Democrats) and then shortlisting Geeta Sidhu Robb is either an extraordinary run of bad luck or else (at the very least) a sign of gross incompetence. 

The party confirmed yesterday that “Geeta Sidhu-Robb has been suspended from the Liberal Democrats and will not be on the ballot paper to be the Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of London. There is an investigation underway in accordance with due process.” As indeed it should be, and I am grateful the party has acted immediately following complaints. However, such an investigation must look beyond Ms Sidhu Robb's past and examine fully the allegations that the party has been deliberately recruiting people for their wealth and connections. 

I don't know if the allegations are true, but if they are then it is a disgraceful situation. The fact that the claims are plausible is sufficiently concerning. They also highlight a reality that few of us wish to accept, let alone address - that while any party member can seek approval and stand in a non-target seat, being selected for either a target seat or a high profile electoral contest as as the London Mayoral election is a different matter altogether. If you want to be elected, then you will need the means and financial independence to essentially work for free - something that Siobhan Benita alluded to. 

Back in 2010 I attended Lib Dem conference for the first time and met Tessa Munt, the then new MP for Wells. I was horrified to discover that, in order to win her seat (with a tiny manjority of 800), Ms Munt had remortgaged her house in order to be able to campaign full-time. This is an absolutely appalling state of affairs, essentially requiring "serious" candidates to gamble with their finances and assets.  It was completely unacceptable then, and it's equally unacceptable now. Unfortunately, I see little evidence that anything has significantly changed.

What the Sidhu Robb controversy has done is underline the urgent need to have an overdue conversation about what we expect from candidates, how we attract the right people, how we genuinely make selections meritocratic and how we support talented people who lack the same financial means as Ms Sidhu Robb. Wealth should never buy influence in our party, and should never be an excuse for adopting less rigorous vetting processes. There should be no room for "cheque book politics" in the Liberal Democrats.

Siobhan Benita has kept a dignified silence since stepping down, but took to twitter recently to explain that she "didn't want to be associated with current events in the London campaign" and to identify "serious issues that need fixing in the London region... I couldn't run the campaign I wanted to". Whatever has happened in London in recent weeks, the Liberal Democrats need to learn from this shambles.  Party members deserve better, Londoners deserve better, and democracy deserves better.