Outraged about failure in the party’s complaints system?  Try this…..

Ed: I am sure you will understand why we are pre-moderating comments on this post. We will not publish comments that name an individual, nor ones that clearly reference specific cases. 

As a party the Liberal Democrats believe firmly in evidence-based policy-making. We put huge amounts of effort into collecting and triangulating views and information, into scrutinising and testing ideas and suggestions, and into ensuring whatever policy proposals we put forward are robust and properly thought through, with all the consequences understood.

Given all that entirely rational, logical behaviour when it comes to policy. what on earth happens to the critical faculties of Lib Dem members when it comes to other issues within the party?  And specifically, just why is it that so many people simply lap up anything they are told if it is critical of the party’s complaints system?

Now don’t get me wrong.  I am certainly not arguing that the complaints system is infallible. Nor am I arguing it should not be criticised.  All I want is for the criticism to be well-founded, and – preferably – constructive, rather than confrontational, which will improve nothing and generally just makes matters worse.

I am on record as not being a fan when the complaints system was originally set up in 2019. I thought the principle of having an independent system was right, but that the rules by which it was going to operate were not going to be effective. And even though It has evolved over the past 3 years, there are clearly still issues.

According to the report that was due to go to Federal Conference, the overwhelming majority of complaints are dismissed. This suggests that either people are submitting trivial or spurious complaints, or that they don’t understand how to submit a complaint or what evidence they need to provide. Much more needs to be done to explain the system to would-be complainants.

But also, panels sometimes come to some very odd decisions, not always corrected on appeal. But the fact that panels may sometimes make the wrong judgement doesn’t mean they always make the wrong judgement.

And, more pertinently, the fact that I or you may personally disagree with a decision doesn’t mean the decision must be wrong.  What makes us so sure we know better than the panel? They have seen all the evidence and heard from both sides. We haven’t.

And yet, all over social media we have members and ex-members- claiming they have been punished unfairly and people joining in agreeing that it is an outrage. And to the people joining in, I want to ask the following question: how do you know?

Some of these cases may in fact be outrages. And some of them may not. They could be people who have behaved appallingly but object to being held to account. They could be people who do not even realise that their behaviour was unacceptable. They could be mistaken, not have understood, or just simply be lying. Yet so many people take what they say at face value – sometimes without even knowing what the complaint was about, never mind anything about how the case was handled.

I totally get that Lib Dems generally want to support the underdog. But how is it sensible to suspend your critical faculties so as to unconditionally accept one side of the story without even a moment’s pause for thought?  What happened to all that evidence-based decision-making?

If you are going to back someone, you need to be at least a bit sure of your ground.  Anyone who has been a councillor will be familiar with residents bringing them casework where it initially seems as though the council has treated the person abysmally, only to find out when you look into it that things are not quite as simple or one-sided as the resident made them out to be. The same is true with regard to complaints.

You just need to ask the person what they were accused of and why they believe they have been unfairly treated. They can tell you. It is a little known fact but once a case is over, both the complainant and the subject of the complaint are able to share the details.  It’s in the guidance to the disciplinary system, on page 12 under Confidentiality:

Once a complaints process has concluded, where a Complaint has been upheld the Panel will suggest who to tell and how these parties should be informed about the outcome and any sanction imposed. At this point, it is no longer necessary to maintain confidentiality about the details of the Complaint and parties may make these public.

But triangulate what you are told. If you only get information from one side and not the other, how can you work out whether what you are being told is the unbiased truth?

I am not trying to tell you not to be outraged about the complaints system. I am simply asking you to check whether a case of outrage truly is deserving before you decide to support it.  Evidence-based decision-making, in other words. What could be more Liberal Democrat than that?


* Prue Bray (she/her) has been a member of the Lib Dems since 1994. She has been a councillor in Wokingham since 2000. She was the Chair of the Candidates Committee in England during the 2017 and 2019 General Elections and the 2019 European elections, and is currently chair of ALDC and Vice Chair of the Liberal Democrats in England. She writes in a personal capacity.

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  • Sheila Ritchie 28th Sep '22 - 7:00pm

    I could not agree more, Prue. I was involved in drafting the first set of rules and the first set of amendments and sat, pro tem, of the supervising committee for a while, and can see the flaws and the things that didn’t work the way we expected.

    Not least was the ENORMOUS volume of complaints initially received, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Some were, given as examples in training with no names attached, so petty as to make a kindergarten seem like the Supreme Court.

    I have been the formal friend of a complainant over the last year or so, and I can see the things I think are errors, AND I think the judgement is wrong. But that doesn’t mean I think that any person in the system was put to “get” my friend.

    I apologise, by the way, for the things I got wrong. I WAS doing my best.

    But the insane conspiracy theorising that goes on is just bonkers. The Senior team work ridiculous hours to try to make this work and there is no Adjudicator, or Investigator who is taking bribes or being influenced by TPTB. They are just hard working volunteers who put in tons of work, and may or may not make human errors.

  • Alison MacGregor 28th Sep '22 - 7:40pm

    Agree – I saw a lot of stuff on-line about an expelled member, looked into it, spoke to some people and am now convinced her situation merits further investigation by solicitors.

  • There is a growing section of society, that is especially pronounced in a sub-set of heavy social media users, that really lionises and makes a virtue out of being a victim and oppressed. They see the world as some sort of zero-sum battle of power, and all interactions through this prism of victimisation against a background of abuse of power.

    Given that being oppressed and a victim carries so much currency within this section of society, it comes as no surprise that a political party’s complaints system not only gets abused with the intent of achieving victim status, but the whole process sets of a separate cascade for the possible of claiming victim status from the process itself.

    We similar victim status seeking behaviour (and support from the sidelines of it by less well informed bystanders) everywhere. From people faking being victims of hate crimes, to confected outrage about something someone has said (apparently words are violence), to wildly cynical and antagonist attitudes to actions of the police when dealing with violent criminals.

    Until people stop giving value to victimhood and the notion of “always believe the victim”, you’re going to continue to see what you’re seeing in the complaints system

  • Angie Robertson 28th Sep '22 - 10:16pm

    The principles of being an evidence based party and considering a wide range of viewpoints are very important to liberalism. However it is crucial we adhere to those principles even when some do not want to, and not pick and choose when we apply those principles. Within the party some topics are off limits for any discussion, including the evidence behind our policies in these areas. That needs to change. The party feels like a pressure cooker right now. It is impossible, illiberal and unhealthy to act to continually suppress debate in certain areas.

  • Great article, much needed. It’s very easy to take the side of friends over faceless bureaucrats.

  • @ Angie Robertson: the article is about the complaints’ system. And is correct in pointing out the time and energy devoted to trying to resolve complaints. No system is going to get everything right. But I believe the process does a decent job, considering limited resources.

    You are talking about another issue which is the lack of free duscussion on certain topics. How is your post relevant to the complaints’ process?

  • Prue,

    You ask “But how is it sensible to suspend your critical faculties so as to unconditionally accept one side of the story without even a moment’s pause for thought? What happened to all that evidence-based decision-making?” But those are the wrong questions because they are a false assumption. When a well trusted MP tells me that a member was suspended because of a comment made in a local Lib Dems only group and that the initial decision and the appeal were not independent because the same person was involved in both, but no-one wants to know about it and there is no way out of the impasse – I know there is a fundamental problem with the system.

    What do you say on this?

  • I think Angie’s comment is just about on topic. Prue’s article rightly makes a point of extolling the virtues of rational, evidence-based decision-making, so it is perfectly relevant to pick up on that reference and note that the party is not applying that principle consistently in all areas. OK it’s maybe not a point that is central to the discussion, but I think it is still relevant enough. (And also correct. Well said Angie!)

  • Angie Robertson 29th Sep '22 - 7:21am

    @Chris Moore if you read Prue’s first paragraph it states we are an evidenced based party that listens to many views and considers consequences of policies. I think that is what we should be as a liberal party but I disagree that is what we are currently doing in certain areas. My comment directly relates to that opening paragraph. I would like us to return to that principle in all areas we make policy.

  • John David Pugh 29th Sep '22 - 8:24am

    There is supposed to be an annual report to conference on the new complaints system which has not so far seen the light of day and which may provide some useful data which could provide us all with an opportunity to scrutinise what is going on- whether the system is coping. It would help if we knew when it is to be published. I believe that the new system though capable of improvement contains some safeguards which the old discredited system did not but is still capable of improvement and can be subjected to helpful criticism. Collecting feedback from those who have availed themself of it would be useful (ps I have never formally complained against anyone ). I can only assume from the mere existence of this article from someone so well placed as Prue that there has been significant negative feedback. There may or may not be a valid basis for such responses but if (a) we want to follow a path of continuous improvement or (b) we wish simply to ensure our fellow members are treated in the most kindly and tolerant way possible it unwise to assume that things can’t got horribly wrong sometimes.

  • Chris Moore 29th Sep '22 - 9:11am

    Hello, Angie, I actually agree with you on the point you made. There are clearly certain topics where open discussion is not permitted.

    But the complaints’ system is surely not one of them?

  • Angie Robertson 29th Sep '22 - 9:19am

    @TonyH thank you!

  • Simon McGrath 29th Sep '22 - 10:22am

    @John Pugh
    “There is supposed to be an annual report to conference on the new complaints system which has not so far seen the light of day “

    Its in the Reports to Conference, page 66


  • John Lib Dem 29th Sep '22 - 12:48pm

    The party’s complaints system is neither independent nor transparent and is frequently weaponised for malicious reasons. The have been several cases that have resulted in completely disproportionate sanctions and a couple of others that I am aware of that have been dismissed without proper investigation for reasons that would appear to be simply protecting somebody in the ‘in crowd’.

    Angie Robertson’s comment is spot on too – and actually quite relevant to some of the complaints made as well. The party shouldn’t be picking and choosing when our values matter and when evidence matters.

  • David Evans 1st Oct '22 - 2:40pm

    Simon McGrath – Thank you for posting the link to the report. It’s interesting to see its content. However, it seems to be a typical report produced by a bureaucracy – lots of data on how hard we are working, but little information on the really important stuff.

  • Thanks Simon- @ Simon McGrath. I looked foolishly within the agenda to see if there was going to be an oral report- as has been the case on occasions- without checking all the documentation presented at conference .The report is valuable and one hopes it exhibits a downward trend following recent sharp increases and that sensible thresholds are set for serious complaints. It is clear the new system is coping better with the volume of complaints,but it saddening how rare the use of mediation which is such a desirable feature of the new system is used. There is plenty in the report to discourage those who want weaponise the system for their own ends, but unless I am misinterpreting the data lesser sanctions such as an offer of training seem to be under-used. The world is often a greyer place and less black and white place than seems reflected in our system, but I do not underestimate the difficulty of getting the process right and am supportive of Neil Christian’s efforts and resolve to do so.

  • Mark Johnston 5th Oct '22 - 10:59am

    I’m happy to consider fully all evidence if/when it becomes available. Even in the case of a complaint being upheld there is the question of a sanction such as expulsion being (or not being) proportionate when all circumstances are considered.

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