Opinion: Time to concentrate on making our party fairer

Bad things happen in political parties just as they do elsewhere – the important thing is to learn from your mistakes and make every effort not to repeat them.

Recently, serious events forced us as a party to hold up a mirror to ourselves and in a number of areas we were found wanting.

As Helena Morrissey author of Processes and culture within the Liberal Democrats and recommendations for change herself said

Liberal Democrats recognise that the allegations alone and the circumstances surrounding them mean that the Party failed to live up to its own ideology.

Our ideology aka our values is what makes people join our party and if we collectively or individually do not live up to them our members leave: I’ve seen it happen.

We had the courage and the good sense to appoint an outsider, a professional, an independent expert, and a genuine champion of equality with a track record.

We are the only mainstream British political party to do this (when we know that the problems we face are not unique to us).

And Morrissey’s report pulled no punches. She identified failings by individuals, processes, structures and areas of weakness in our party’s culture more generally.

But beyond the finger pointing it’s worth highlighting she also identified some clear recommendations for action:

  • Prevent issues from festering
  • Address complaints as a higher priority
  • Monitor complaints handling
  • Prevent women and ethnic minorities feeling undervalued
  • Address situations where there are is underrepresentation of women and other groups
  • Monitor the effectiveness of the efforts 

Morrissey concluded by saying:

I do not believe that cultural change can be legislated; instead, it needs to be ‘owned’ by those involved. 

She’s right. This is not just Nick Clegg’s problem or Tim Farron’s problem to solve – it is up to us all as members to demand that everyone in the party, own the solutions to our collective problems – to coin a phrase, that we make it happen.

Viewed in this light, the appointment of a pastoral care officer is a statement of intent.

Unless Morrissey’s recommendations are put into action all we are left with is empty words and once again the credibility of our politics is weakened.

Over the past few years I’ve felt a momentum building in the party at large behind a number of issues, all of them directly related to our core values and beliefs:-

  • A need for a more representative parliamentary party
  • Better opportunities for underrepresented groups to have their voices heard within the Party
  • More forums for members to be involved to a greater extent in policy and decision-making: including and in particular new members 

This sea-change is not confined to the Conference floor. I’ve heard it expressed in fringe meetings, on social media and in local party meetings. There is an appetite for a more inclusive party, more reflective of modern life.

This is a positive development because well, we are Liberals and we don’t believe in things staying the same. We are activists not passive observers: we get angry and then we take action.

As a party, being pro-individual, pro-liberty and pro-equality is a vital part of who we are and if what I’ve noticed is simply a symptom of the fact that we as members are getting more demanding about how well we as a party are reflecting these values than that must surely be a good thing.

But as well as the growing disquiet at the status quo I’ve detected increasing frustration and at times a loss of patience with senior party figures and internal bodies who appear to fail to live up to our ideals on key issues or to deliver on our agenda internally.

Regardless of the annoyance factor, this undermines our effectiveness as a political force.

Because it’s no good shouting from the rooftops about our successes on important issues as shared parental leave, enhanced maternity rights and equal marriage, if it looks to the British public that when at key moments we fail to deliver on greater equality within our own party.

To recap, an expert has helped to diagnose our problems and helpfully come up with some solutions. Let’s follow her advice, and if possible identify further areas for improvement.

Campaigning for a fairer society is the reason many of us joined the Liberal Democrats.

Let’s use that same energy to make our own party fairer so we can once again lead the way towards a fairer Britain.

* Daisy Benson is a former PPC and Group Leader of the Liberal Democrats on Reading Borough Council.

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24 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Jan '14 - 11:09am

    There should be a vote on new internal procedures. Maybe there was a vote but I missed it, but this is the problem I have complained about in the past about votes only being given to conference delegates. It’s not democratic.

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Jan '14 - 11:20am

    I’m not just bringing up democracy because I love it, it’s because the Morrissey report had some controversial recommendations that would further discrimination against working class men. I wouldn’t mind if this had democratic consent, but it feels as though it is being rammed down our throat and we are being told we must accept it.

    People can ridicule me for saying “what about the men” all they like, but I think most people know that diversity is not just skin deep. I do care about diversity.

  • A great article, I agree with every word.

  • Sorry Daisy, I am glad you are so optimistic but with all the ermine brigade (and others) rallying around Rennard it is very difficult to detect the sea-change you are so sure of.

  • Tony Greaves 18th Jan '14 - 1:36pm

    A good but rather vague posting.

    But the previous comment is inappropriate. The House of Lords LD group may be one of the most welcoming, inclusive and collegiate in the party. (Of course, first you have to get there…)

    Tony

  • The ideology? A return to the values of Liberalism so lets re-embrace Temperance.

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Jan '14 - 6:30pm

    To strike a positive note I’ll say I agree we need to be a welcoming and positive environment for women and other underrepresented groups. I know actions speak louder than words, but I can’t provide any more for now. I too get quite anxious simply witnessing the lack of women in politics, so it’s good that plenty of our candidates are women.

    All the best.

  • Liberal Neil 18th Jan '14 - 11:26pm

    @Ruth Bright – there appeasr to be quite a spread of opinions among our peers, with quite a few of them already backing Nick’s stance strongly.

  • This is a good contribution by Daisy Benson. It should be read together with the excellent piece in The Independent by Laura Willoughby. —
    http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/a-close-friend-of-mine-was-involved-in-an-encounter-with-lord-rennard-now-i-feel-i-ought-to-speak-out-9068520.html

    There are at least two people capable of looking beyond the immediate and writing about party matters in a constructive way. What a stark contrast with the comments by the former advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister, Bridget Harris. —
    http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/jan/18/nick-clegg-aide-quits-lib-dems-lord-rennard

  • How about gender segregated seating in conferences? It would stop the wandering hands of some over-sexed peers. Maybe our Muslim friends have the right idea.

    Having a physically attractive member of the opposite sex (or for some the same sex) sitting next to you does tend to put you off focusing on the speech being given.

    Why have we become so denialist of basic human nature? A few articles ago we were extolling the virtues of porn watching via the Internet for teenagers. We cannot have the argument both ways.

  • Nick Barlow 19th Jan '14 - 8:53am

    “Having a physically attractive member of the opposite sex (or for some the same sex) sitting next to you does tend to put you off focusing on the speech being given.”

    I think the only response to that is ‘speak for yourself’. Is it back to the 70s week in the comments here?

  • Nick, I do speak for myself. Some women are so absolutely gorgeous that it really is hard to focus on other matters. Why should I be ashamed to admit it?

    I do have sufficient self control however to avoid touching them (unless they make clear that they would quite like to be touched).

    We should stop making ourselves out to be self-righteous prudes. 10 million years of evolution cannot be denied.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 19th Jan '14 - 9:43am

    Well said Daisy, but unfortunately sexual harrassment and gender abuse against women will only end when a critical mass of men decide to give up their belief that power is best invested in themselves. Our Peers could start this process as they are few in number and be an inspiration to us all!

  • Neil – I am relieved to hear what you say but Steel’s remarks about the new role of Pastoral Care Officer do not augur well for the future.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 19th Jan '14 - 12:58pm

    The established of a Pastoral Care Officer was an excellent decision, but unless there is genuine support for cultural change within the Party, then from my own experience I know that one person alone will not make any difference.

    The fear from many whom I have spoken with within the Party is that the Pastoral Care role is a ‘tick box’ exercise and as such tokenistic. We need to make sure that the Pastoral Care Officer is afforded genuine support and has the ‘teeth’ to bring about change, otherwise abuses will ‘carry on regardless’ and still not be reported and dealt with.

  • Liberal Neil 19th Jan '14 - 4:21pm

    Ruth – Sensible people stopped listening to David Steel many years ago.

    But at least half a dozen peers including Ashdown, Brinton, Paddick and Ece have already backed Nick’s position.

  • Ruth Bright 19th Jan '14 - 5:35pm

    Neil – I think that defines the problem. Poor Joe Public hasn’t a clue about the internal dynamics of the party and which old timer should or should not be listened to. Sal and Meral are admirable but few people outside the Lib Dems know who they are. Steel can command a full page in a national newspaper because he was party leader.

  • Simon Banks 19th Jan '14 - 6:09pm

    On the point about votes my conference delegates being an undemocratic way of deciding things – Conference delegates are democratically elected and answerable to their local parties (not mandated, but if you want to ask them questions about how they voted or intend to vote, you can do so and the model constitution indicates they should give a report to the AGM). They’re not representative for obvious reasons – the cost and time involved; but judging by what I saw in Glasgow, in many respects they’re probably more representative than the average Executive Committee.

    Some issues could better be settled by a larger group, but I’d suggest changes to party rules aren’t one of them. It would, though, be sensible to write to local parties about such changes – and the same goes for changes at regional level.

  • Joe
    A return to the Victorian values of high Liberalism?
    Is this the answer to the recent problems?

  • Manfarang, unfortunately the self-righteous hypocrites have won, and it is tearing the party apart. Whoever is without sin should cast the first stone. Now we have a man who is perhaps a bit inept when it comes to engaging with the opposite sex, who is having his life and reputation dissected in public.

    Whatever good deeds he has done in his life are ignored. Where is our humanity? Where is our humility, that if some allegations are made against us, that it should be blown up out of all proportion.

    The professional self-righteous hand-wringers are having a field day, promoting their own egos. This is the sort of behaviour that a very wise man spoke out against around 2000 years ago. We should take note to heed his wisdom, before we self-destruct.

  • Daisy talks reasonably about the subject. Contrast that with the following from Nick Clegg who tells us that it is not his job to “micro-manage”.

    From the BBC WEBSITE —
    Justin Webb is interviewing Nick Clegg.
    Webb says Clegg is making a speech on mental health today. But Clegg also has to deal with the Rennard affair today.

    Q: Have you spoken to Rennard?

    No, says Clegg.

    Q: Why not?

    Because it is not my job to micro-manage this. Clegg says he has a duty of care to the women involved. And he has to uphold the integrity of the party’s disciplinary procedures.

    The inquiry found that there was not enough evidence of an offence, but that distress had been caused, and apology was in order.

    Q: What’s the point if he does not mean an apology?

    Clegg says he expects people in his party to treat people with decency.

    Q: Why won’t you say that to him yourself? It sounds as if you are frightened of it, because you don’t want to take sides.

  • “Now we have a man who is perhaps a bit inept when it comes to engaging with the opposite sex, who is having his life and reputation dissected in public.”

    Attempts to paint Rennard as a hapless victim have to come to terms with the fact that it’s being claimed on his behalf that the women concerned are lying about what happened – not about what may have been going on in his head, but about the facts of the matter.

    The problem is that there is very little middle ground. Either these women are conspiring to destroy his reputation by making up false allegations. Or else Rennard did do what they allege, and is now adding insult to injury by making them out to be liars.

  • Unfortunately a quiet apology some time ago was not given. That would have defused the situation. Now it is escalating, not least by threats of court action and claims of innocence.

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