A view from conference: the Party disciplinary processes debate

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Around April 2015, I was seriously considering not voting for the Liberal Democrats in the upcoming general election. It wasn’t the mistakes of the coalition that worried me, it was something about the values of the party around that time that gave me pause to wonder if it was the right thing to do. I read about the scandals about complaints in the party, and it seemed that attitudes were not as progressive or inclusive as I expected. Complaints against members appeared to be inadequate and chaotic, leaving victims (especially women), feeling unsafe in the party. I wondered if I could vote for that kind of party.

“Maybe not”, I thought.

I looked at my local candidates. The Lib Dem was a young woman, and that eased my uncertainty a little. I voted for her.

This weekend, we were presented with revised proposals to improve the party disciplinary procedures. There was a sense in the hall that this debate would be more productive than the one in Southport. I sat with many others who had little personal involvement in disciplinary issues but still wanted a process that reflected our party values. But there were others who had been failed by the party and were there to demand change. To demand better, in fact. There were many in the debate who had put effort and personal capital into healing this weeping sore. It was time to start the recovery process properly. No more sticking plasters.

There were two amendments to the motion. One to include counselling services, and the other for an anonymised independent reporting system. Vulnerable people do not report to systems that they do not trust or will leave them exposed. We needed a system that does not put anyone in compromising or unsafe circumstances. Sarah Olney gave a passionate defence for the principle of anonymity, emphasising the necessity not just for victims, but also for whistleblowers. The debate focused on sexual assault, but the process also includes bullying, harassment, unethical conduct in office, and the promotion of racist, homophobic, transphobic or misogynistic abuse, and any complaint about a member of the party.

If the calm, rational evidence presented by April Preston did not convince the hall to vote for the motion nd the amendments, then the testimony of Becca Plenderleith did. The Chair of the Scottish Young Liberals spoke passionately on behalf of her own members and of her own recent experience of making the decision whether it was worth reporting to a broken system. Her speech was direct, brutal and a reminder of the urgency for a new process.

With both the motions and amendments passed. I believe we have the best approach for handling complaints. We will be the first UK political party with a process that puts complainants in control of the process. There may be tweaks to make, but we are starting from a good place. It is considerably better than the process that failed a lot of members and ex-members, and tainted the name of the party.

And now we have a reporting system fit for purpose, we all need to ensure that our fellow members and supporters have little cause to use it.

* Marjorie Bark is still a Newbie who joined the Liberal Democrats in May 2015. She is on the executive of Babergh (South Suffolk) Liberal Democrats and was elected as a parish councillor in May 2017.

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