It's quite some time to be a Lib Dem: the ongoing Huhne/Pryce court case, the resultant Eastleigh by-election and, now, the allegations against Lord Rennard and the party*.
Last Friday, I was delighted to be able to get out delivering for Mike Thornton in Eastleigh: as a new(ish) activist it was my first taste of by-election campaigning - I only wish I had been in a position to go for longer. It has been a campaign that seems to have really galvanised the activists within the party. Record numbers have, reportedly, been flocking to Eastleigh to campaign and record donations made and the enthusiasm seems to have been matched by a high quality, efficient campaign organisation.
Morale has been high in defiance - as we so often are - of the prevailing media mood music and, in this case, the reason for the poll. Lib Dems are nothing if not stoical, independently minded and damned if they're going to dance to someone else's tune. Yes, we may be engaged in a pas de deux with the Tories - but we know that they are not picking all the music themselves.
On Thursday night, though, Channel 4 News broke a story which has great potential to not only damage morale but seriously damage the party - both centrally and throughout the country. Lord Rennard, it is alleged, sexually harassed a number of woman and, when concerns were raised sought to cover them up. Lord Rennard subsequently resigned as Chief Executive on health grounds.
Much has been said and written and many of these points will have been made elsewhere. Here, though, are some of my thoughts on the matter.
1. Nothing has been proved
As with any occasion in which one is dealing with allegations, and where they are being denied, we should remember that central tenet of our legal system: innocent until proven guilty. Even where the matter is extra-judicial, we shouldn't jump to conclusions...
2. Nothing has been disproved
...which is not to say that should dismiss the claims now being made. Sexual harassment - and unwanted bodily contact - cannot be condoned. Repeated harassment cannot be excused.
3. "We are not dealing with Savile here"
Despite the number of sexual scandals competing for media attention, this is not a game of Top Trumps. Suggesting as much belittles the complainants, trivialises their complaints and gives succour to those who think that this is about "just touching a woman's knee" as if that were acceptable behaviour.
Note: I have not, at time of writing heard the World at One interview with Jasper Gerrard. If his comments are as reported, I would hope he is de-selected as a PPC.
4. I detest this being used as a political football...
The fact that our opponents can seek to make political capital out of the issue - as many are seeking to do - is symptomatic of a society that struggles to take these issues seriously. There are those who would do well to remember that "there but for the grace of God, go I [or my party]...". When they do, we should seek to rise above the game that some now wish to play.
Perhaps I'm being naïve.
5. We should not question the timing of the allegations - and certainly not in public
Some have suggested that the report has been timed to disrupt our campaigning in the Eastleigh by election - other's that this is part of an elaborate campaign to unseat Clegg.
Whatever, even if you do believe there is an ulterior motive, what is gained from airing it publicly? Suggesting that the complainants are players - or pawns - in a wider political game is cheap, and belittling; and plays into the hands of our opponants.
Besides, there would never be a "good" time for such allegations; suggesting that the timing is fishy is playing politics with peoples’ lives. Which brings me on to my next point...
6. Not everything should be seen through the prism of politics...
The more involved in politics you are, the more refracted your world view becomes. Seeking the most favourable angle and best spin in everything becomes second nature. When something like this happens, those at the top need to step out of that mindset and take a fresh look. Not at how to present this for the best in the short-term but how best to deal with it for the long-term.
If the allegations of a cover-up are true, this should have been done a long time ago. It certainly needs done now. Those involved - on both sides - deserve for natural justice to be openly served.
7. ...there are belated signs of the party getting this
Last night's statement by Nick Clegg was strong. Whilst I agree it did raise additional questions - specifically what is meant by "indirect and non-specific concerns" and how such concerns were deemed serious enough to be put to (then) Chris Rennard but don't appear to have been followed up further - it goes some way to recognising that real action is needed rather than the somewhat anaemic statement originally made. That statement should been made on Thursday.
Humans fail. Institutions fail. But they can also learn from failure - we must make sure that the party does. What matters now is that we get to a) the bottom of the specific allegations made - both of harassment and of inaction/cover-up and b) policies are fully revised to ensure that there is a recognised procedure for reporting any future abuse of power, position through sexual (or any form) of harassment and abuse.
8. An independent inquiry is required
I understand that the inquiry chair is to be Alistair Webster whom I understand is a former chair of the Lib Dem Lawyers association. Taken at face value, one could question his independence, but without further knowledge I'm going to reserve judgement.
9. We can get through this
It's going to be stormy and it's going to be unpleasant.
But the party needs to face it's failings and effect real change.
It owes Lord Rennard and the various complainants a fair hearing.
It owes any other woman with grievances a chance to air them.
It owes the public the knowledge that the Liberal Democrats have the courage to examine ourselves and ensure our own house is in order when we're pronouncing on issues of equality, discrimination, harassment and abuse.
And it owes it to all those who have worked for the party as activists, supported the party in deliveries or financially and voted for the party in elections. In Eastleigh, we have a cause worth fighting for, morale is high and enthusiasm levels are through the roof. Hundreds and thousands of volunteers and activists fighting for their party, proud to be Liberal Democrats, happy to represent the party at Westminster, the party as an institution. Happy for that party to represent them.
If the party fails to satisfactorily address the recent allegations, it will have failed these people - as well as those directly concerned.
*I've tried to use the phrase "the party" to refer to the party organisation and leadership, and "we" and "us" where I intend a wider meaning in terms of the membership.