The news that Lord Rennard has been welcomed back into the fold has engendered both despair and joy across the party. Those who ‘never understood what the fuss was all about’, those who are no longer sure they want to be part of a party that doesn’t appear to live its values. Lester Holloway, among others, offers an excellent analysis of the wider implications.
I have made no secret of my disappointment about the way this case has been handled from the start. As a party it appears we have betrayed our values – our commitment to equality and justice for all.
To be honest, our existing rules have served nobody well. To use criminal standards of proof in cases that amount to dignity at work issues, which in any other circumstance would require a civil standard of proof, is bizarre at best and as we are now seeing, disastrous at worst. I have not only served as a Unison Branch Secretary, where disciplinary and grievance procedures were my bread and butter, but also as a trustee for a number of charities where procedures have to cover volunteers as well as paid staff. This isn’t always easy to manage, a volunteer is giving their time for free after all, but the least they can expect is to be treated with dignity and respect by their managers.
When this all came out early last year, Naomi Smith wrote a perceptive piece which hit the nail on the head. Namely the much wider problem we have as a party with the abuse of power and patronage. This is why I believe that as well as a root and branch review of our internal processes and procedures, we also need to understand the power play at work. We need to reconnect our values and our behaviours. Anything less undermines our integrity and seriously weakens our claim to be a party of freedom and equality. Patronage is deeply corrosive – I know of people who have privately agreed with me when I have spoken up but will not say anything themselves for fear of blighting their chances of a peerage. This is how things get covered up with the hope they will then go away. Only today a debate has been going on about the apparent fear of our senior women to ‘put their heads above the parapet’ on this issue. But it isn’t just this, it’s on so many other issues. The result of no one being prepared to speak out or challenge is the kind of mess we now find ourselves in.
So what happens now? Our claim to be a party for women lies in tatters. The great work we have done on childcare or shared parental leave in undermined when we appear to be institutionally sexist. In my view the following must happen and happen quickly –
- All internal processes and procedures reviewed for potential direct and indirect discrimination – this importantly must prioritise disciplinary procedure
- A review of the Morrissey recommendations – where they have not yet been implemented, why not – where they have been implemented what has been the impact?
- Working together to address the problems of the effectiveness of the organisation, challenging cliqueism and initiating meritocratic structural reform.
- The leadership and senior members of the party to put their own houses in order – how reflective are their teams in terms of gender, ethnicity, disability, sexuality – and dare I say it, class? Do they welcome challenge, or avoid it by only appointing people who will agree with them?
- Attempting to harass those who make a complaint, or their supporters to be pursued as a disciplinary offence
- The party to be clear about how it will reverse or review coalition policies that have had a disproportionate impact on women, ethnic minorities and those with disabilities.
And as for Lord Rennard? No one can ever take away from the huge force for good he has been for our party, but surely, if he was prepared to be honest with himself about the impact, however ‘inadverdent’, his behaviour has had on the wellbeing of the party he loves, now would be the time to consider his position.
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* Linda Jack is a member of the party's Diversity Engagement Group