Opinion: Post Rennard: living up to our liberal values 

Liberal Democrat badge - Some rights reserved by Paul Walter, Newbury, UKThe Rennard affair has been a very difficult and protracted period for all those involved, but also for the party. It has exposed the party’s over-complex structures and processes, which have spectacularly failed with this difficult case. But we delude ourselves if we think that this is only about the Rennard case – this is about living up to our liberal values.

As a party, we rightly condemn those in the public sector who do not look after those who are more vulnerable than ourselves. We expect managers to have the interests of those in their care, including staff and volunteers, uppermost. We express disgust when bullying and harassment are not challenged from the start. It is very difficult to have to look at our own party in that way too.

The Morrisey Report rightly identified some of the long standing problems within the party, many of which come back to fundamental principles of equity and fairness which we believe are at the heart of what we stand for.

Women and Black, Asian and Ethnic Minorities are poorly represented in the more senior roles in the party. This is appalling. We seem to believe as liberals that pure talent will out but then repeatedly select white men. I spoke to a colleague from our Dutch sister party D66 this week who said that they always have equal selection of female and male candidates, because it is part of their culture.

Helena Morrisey’s other main concern was that all Liberal Democrats need to make it clear that bullying and harassment (which is, after all, abuse of power) will not be tolerated anywhere in the party. It isn’t someone else’s problem. It is ours, yours and mine. Of course, we need the right formal structures and processes in place: Standing Orders, Model Terms and clear lines of management, for volunteers and for professional staff. But much more than that, we need to support anyone who comes forward with a complaint about a member of the Party, and ensure that harassment is challenged appropriately.

I’ve been working for twenty years to bring awareness of bullying in our schools, and I am the Co-Chair of the all party parliamentary Bullying Group. Over those years I have learned that the most effective schools involve all the pupils and students to tackle unacceptable behaviour, and the structures are there to give strength to the cultural attitudes about the abuse of power. As a former senior manager I know how essential the formal processes are too.

So whilst I am pleased that the Morrisey Report was accepted in full, it is the implementation of it throughout the party that will change the way we tackle these in the future. It won’t be good enough for the Federal Executive just to receive reports, nor just for staff, parliamentarians and senior activists to have anti-bias training, nor just to have all our hopes and expectations on the Pastoral Care Officer, important as that role is.

We have to make sure that it becomes everyone’s responsibility to have a zero tolerance of bullying and harassment, and a total commitment to diversity within the party.  Stand up with me to help make it happen.

All comments on this post will be pre-moderated.

* Baroness Sal Brinton is President of the Liberal Democrats. She is a working Lib Dem peer, and was the candidate for Watford at the 2010 and 2005 General Elections.

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20 Comments

  • That is a really helpful response. I have been feeling uneasy about the burden that the Pastoral Care Officer could be under. Having one is important, but support is essential.

  • Post Rennard, Sal? You think this is over? I see dozens of really angry members on social media and comments columns who will not take this lying down, not to mention safe-hands middle-of-the-roaders who are extremely critical of Rennard and still highlighting that a QC found his accusers’ evidence ‘broadly credible’.

  • Meral Hussein Ece 21st Aug '14 - 12:17pm

    Sal is absolutely correct – ‘ implementation is key’ Problem is who will deliver that change? We have such complex structures , that there is no consistency. Our Danish sister party have ‘equal lists of male and female’ – Can you imagine this ever getting through conference? I still recall the howls of protest when EMLD put a motion to Birmingham conference, many from leading female and BNE members, to include at least one person of colour on a PPC shortlist. It’s didn’t get through and was ‘taken back’ and we finally got the Leadership Programme. When it comes to changing the face and culture of the party, few people want change and no one takes responsibility for that radical change to take place. A very conservative approach. Disappointing.

  • Joshua Dixon 21st Aug '14 - 12:23pm

    Do you think Lord Rennard should be considering his position, Sal? Do you think it would be safer for women in the party to have him away from events and off any party committees?

  • Richard Dean 21st Aug '14 - 1:10pm

    I think Meral’s idea is great – every shortlist needs to be gender-balanced and have at least one minority that is relevant locally. It’s simple, clear, easy to implement, fairly easy for observers (and there ought to be a party process for this) to check that the final selection process is not biased, and looks more or less guaranteed to result in a solution.

  • Rabi Martins 21st Aug '14 - 1:23pm

    I can’t help but agree with Meral’s comment above particularly the reference to > “the howls of protest when EMLD put a motion to Birmingham conference, many from leading female and BNE members, to include at least one person of colour on a PPC shortlist<" I am sure Sal remembers the debate and the vote which defeated the motion well because she was amongst those who argued against this well thought out EMLD motion which was designed to make the Party be as representative as it claims to be

    And again as Meral says everyone talks about the need for change but NO ONE TAKES RESPONSIBILITY for making it happen
    The Party President is ideally placed to ensure that the Party goes beyond just talking about putting an end to the discrimination that is practiced within the Party, whether intended or unconscious. Strategies and plans don't bring about change of their on accord Agreeing that we need put an end to practices that hold back certain sections of our membership (BME, Women, Disabled) from progessing to senior professional, appointed or elected office within the Party is a goood analysis of the the problem Someoone needs to take responsibility for finding and implementing the solution. Is it too much to ask someone who aspires to be our next Party President to promise to undertake an annual Diversity and Equalities Audit across the Party and report the results to each Autumn Federal Conference ? This will put everyone on notice that we are serious about being a truly fair and open Party

  • Meral Hussein Ece 21st Aug '14 - 2:39pm

    I would also add that all federal bodies/ committees, and local party executives need to be gender balanced, and reflect the local communities. Change happening from grassroots, pushes change at the top.

  • Can I say that it is NOT generally because people actually oppose change – it is more often that people are not available (sometimes it is because people are not asked, although that seems to me from experience the less likely explanation. We are always encouraged within the party to ask people if they are prepared to do things). I am not sure what sort of Local Party Meral belongs to, but my local party is probably in the top 100 membership parties, and we invariably try to encourage people of both sexes, all ages, and where we have different ethnicities to become active in roles appropriate to experience etc. Our issue is getting anyone to take on roles. This discussion seems to assume that the main problem is with selection / election, but I am sure most have the numbers active vs inactive members, ageing members etc problem. I would like Meral, in particular, to tell me how this differs in London. Most parties report that only around 10% of their number are active in terms of standing for election, being an officer / exec member etc. Is there a difference?

  • A Social Liberal 21st Aug '14 - 3:21pm

    Why aren’t we hearing more about the need to have disabled people being represented more by Lib Dems? Approximately 20 per cent of the country is disabled and yet the numbers of disabled on our committees is almost non existant.

    Similarly with disabled PPCs, how many of those who are chosen to be PPC are registered with us as being disabled, how many of those shortlisted? For that matter how many Lib Dem MPs are disabled?

    I know that disabled people are not exactly vogue, but we are here, you know and perhaps should be given the same chances as other minorities.

  • David Evershed 21st Aug '14 - 4:21pm

    If candidates with particular attibutes don’t wish to put themselves forward for positions in the party then you can’t make them.

    Any proposal to have equal numbers of male/female candidates might mean preventing particular male or female candidates being candidates at all in order to keep the numbers equal.

    The right road is the extra training for potential female parliamentary candidates that is already provided by the party to try to correct for the fewer female candidates.

  • Simon McGrath 21st Aug '14 - 4:42pm

    @Merel “I would also add that all federal bodies/ committees, and local party executives need to be gender balanced, and reflect the local communities”

    If only we were turning people away from being on local party executives. In the real world many local parties are struggling to get people to be on these committees at all.

  • What GPPurnell said. It’ll only be “post Rennard” when people stop being furious about it, and that’s not happened, and doesn’t show any signs of doing so

  • Richard Dean 21st Aug '14 - 5:36pm

    @Simon McGrath
    Have you considered the chicken and the egg? In the real world, maybe it’s the evident gender imbalance that is the reason why “many local parties are struggling” in the first place?

  • Nonconformistradical 21st Aug '14 - 5:57pm

    “If only we were turning people away from being on local party executives. In the real world many local parties are struggling to get people to be on these committees at all.”

    Quite – and the failure of those at the centre of the party (including activists in target areas) to recognise this is a measure of the disconnect between the centre of the party and those outside target areas.

  • I was told we had to amend all our constitutions to remove gender bias as it was now against the law. Is this true now? I would welcome a 50:50 rule for everything from local party execs up to to federal committees. If that is against the law then we should be campaigning as Liberals and Democrats to change that law.

  • “But much more than that, we need to support anyone who comes forward with a complaint about a member of the Party, and ensure that harassment is challenged appropriately.”

    This is not the case even in the post-Morissey, post Pastoral Care Officer, Brave New World party based on my experience since May. I was directed at the complaints procedure by the PCO but I wouldn’t say I was given any support.

  • Michael Carling 22nd Aug '14 - 8:54am

    Its not just this case its the whole judicial system. Imagine you lodge a complaint regarding criminal activity which is hopefully thoroughly investigated and the evidence submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service. Imagine how it feels to be told that no further action is to be taken. We may have the fairest legal system in the world but we must not take it for granted or fail to question those who take the decisions .

  • Alan Webster 22nd Aug '14 - 3:54pm

    Where an organisation has an ’embarrassment of riches’ amongst its volunteers the ideals promoted in Sal Brinton’s must surely apply. Nonetheless, I believe the danger here is that the party is simply lurching from one set of lofty ideals to another, neither of which are workable at a practical level.
    Personally, I would find it very patronising and condescending to be on a committee because of what I am rather than being valued for my contribution to the work of the organisation.

  • Candy Piercy 23rd Aug '14 - 9:51am

    I have seen a number of posts asking about why we don’t have equal representation for women on Party committees. The FE has recently taken a step in the right direction on this. At the July FE we discussed reserving places for women on party committees. Under the Equalities Act, political parties are now able to reserve spaces for under-represented groups. We agreed that for the 2014 party elections, half of all committee places will be reserved for women. The FE will have to go back to this for subsequent years to check the evidence to see if women still need this measure to be implemented to achieve equal representation.
    Now obviously this will need enough women to stand so that it can work effectively – which is an entirely different problem .
    I am a bit puzzled as to why this news has not been shared more widely in the light of it’s importance

  • Tony Greaves 23rd Aug '14 - 6:19pm

    So there are to be people elected unopposed regardless of their value or support in the party? If this is the case it is madness and a recipe for some rather obvious problems in the future. But there seem to be some people in the party who now want to put absolute ideological purity before political success.

    Tony Greaves

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