I don’t like it when people from other political parties gleefully leap on the human failings of members of other parties, even when the failures are extremely unpleasant. I’m more than aware, as I’ve said before, that this could well happen in all parties.
So when I read of the unfolding allegations about Lord Rennard, I do have some sympathy for the staff and advisers in the Lib Dems. I can imagine how awkward it would be to be placed in a similar position, and am under no illusion that Labour politicians would never behave in such a way.
However, that very sympathy indicates that the failure in this case points directly to the Leadership of the Liberal Democrats.
The first thing that strikes me, as a political operative, is the wrongness of suggestions that this is some sort of political plot.
Rather, I am astonished by the forbearance of the women involved.
These are women who (at the very least) have been placed in incredibly awkward positions, and who seem to have known their experiences were not isolated but part of a pattern of behaviour, and yet chose to pursue their complaints in private, confidential, non-confrontational ways, presumably in order to not cause embarrassment to the party and cause they care deeply for.1
We should think about that.
Because that willingness to forbear, to be patient, to trust your party, to try and do what is in the best interests of the party, to stay quiet, is what places a burden on a party to do something about such exploitation when it is reported.
It is precisely because women might be prepared to ‘put up’ with such behaviour, to stay quiet about it for so long, to try to resolve it privately in the interests of the party that places a duty on the leadership of a political party to respond to their complaints properly.
As a former party staffer, I am under no illusions that the behaviour of people in politics can be exploitative and harassing. I don’t think for one moment that harassment and groping is limited to the Lib Dems, and have heard enough (unsubstantiated, gossip-fueled) rumours to believe that it’s far more prevalent than I would ever like to believe. Nor are these rumours about politicians alone. In truth, a lot of men make a lot of women deeply uncomfortable.
Yet, (and there sadly is a yet), such bad behaviour isn’t straightforward for a political party to handle.
Think of it in these terms: If an allegation is made, it requires an investigation. Both the form and the nature of that investigation then become incredibly politically and personally sensitive. All sots of questions are raised, questions that can take you far way from the core questions of right and wrong.
These questions include some fundamental ones: To what extent should a political party be responsible for the behaviour of employees or elected representatives, if such behaviour occurs in the private -or semi-private- sphere in which much political activity occurs? How do you manage an investigation when the mere existence of a formal investigation might itself end the career of either party? If you wish to keep any investigation secret therefore, does this open you to allegations of a cover-up? Are the structures of a political party robust enough to conduct such an investigation?2
So I have a lot of sympathy for those in the Lib Dems who were first presented with these allegations. I can totally understand why their responses were unsure, or awkward, or unsatisfactory.
Yet this sympathy leads me to be even less sympathetic to the party leadership.
Because if such an allegation were presented to me, as a member of party staff, my instinct would be to do two things.
The first would be to show the complainant I was taking the complaint seriously. I’d want to log their complaint, understand what outcome they wanted, discuss and agree with them the steps I would take, and how I would communicate progress on these to them.
The next step would be to seek senior guidance.
It’s here the Lib Dems seemed to have failed, and this is ultimately a failure of leadership. Given that the complaints were being made about the top official in the Lib Dems, then at some point the people who received complaints must have decided whether to pass the complaints on to the very highest level.
If they decided that they would not do so, or to hedge the nature of the complaints, because they knew that the complaints themselves would be unwelcome, then that itself is clearly a cultural failure and a failure of leadership.
So let’s assume that they did pass on the complaints. In this case, then a leader has a clear responsibility – they have to say something along the lines of “If this allegation is correct it is unacceptable. We need to find a way to investigate this which is both fair to the complainant and robust in its process. I need a process along these lines setting up immediately, preferably with legal advice, and it needs to have the absolute confidence of the complainants”.
Instead of this, the leadership response to the complaints seem to have been informal, provisional, even to deal with solutions (dread phrase) ‘Man to Man’. This had the effect of keeping the whole issue quiet, of even being provisionally satisfactory.
The problem with this is that it leaves the question of resolution hanging.
If no clear action is taken, and the consent of the complainant to that resolution isn’t agreed, then the complainants don’t really know if their concerns have been addressed or ignored.
When they then later see the subject of their complaint honoured, or welcomed back into the counsels of the party, they will understandably fear the latter. They might then speak out, even years after their original complaint.
It is therefore, due to the way the complaints were handled that the complaints are aired many years later.
It is then the leaderships own fault that this comes up at times they do not control, because they sought to evade the responsibility that leadership placed on them.
Harassment is not the fault of a party leader. Harassment can be awkward and complex for any organisation to handle.
That is precisely why the response to harassment is the responsibility of a leader.
The lib Dem leader’s reaction to the claims over Lord Rennard have been a classic example of an abdication of responsibility by a leader faced with an uncomfortable choice.
It is a failure of leadership.
- Indeed, the fact that the Telegraph had the details of the complaints, in the week before the General Election of 2010, but that the women concerned refused to speak out publicly suggests something along these lines was happening [↩]
- This is no small issue – If the allegation is possibly criminal, or could result in severe damage to someones career, or the conclusions do lead to someone losing their job, any investigation itself might be subject to legal review [↩]