Thursday, 12 November 2015
Chris Rennard and the Federal Executive: It's about rehabilitation.
First things first. I'm a Liberal and I believe in exercising due process. I believe the rule of law and, within the party, the fair application of the rules. I believe in innocence until proven guilty and restorative justice. And I believe in rehabilitation.
I'm also a Liberal Democrat. I want to see the party succeed. Indeed, I want to see the party rebuilt, re-energised - resurrected, even, if I can use such language. And I want to see all parts of the party play their role in that. New members, old members, activists, Councillors, MPs, and Lords.
It's no secret it's been a bruising few years, culminating in a catastrophic election performance in May. There's been compound losses of many Councillors and councils, disastrous results in Scotland and Wales, the loss of all but one of our MEPs as well as the reduction of our MPs to just 8. You don't need me to tell you that it hasn't been fun.
Good things have followed, though: thousands of new members swelling our ranks, our new leader with his distinctive voice on Europe, Refugees, Immigration, Welfare cuts; and his willingness to use our Lords to oppose the Tories, and show up Labour's weaknesses.
Indeed, our Lords have done some sterling work in recent weeks. We may not agree with the institution - but we will work within the system to make lives better for the people of this country.
Against this background, then, it was with dismay that I woke up today to discover that our group in the House of Lords had elected Lord Rennard as their representative on the Federal Executive.
Now, there are those who say: "Lord Rennard has not been convicted of any crime, nor has he been subject to any disciplinary action by the party. Not only that, but Helena Morrissey has said there is no reason he shouldn't play a full role in the party."
And they'd be right.
And as someone who believes in rehabilitation you might expect me to agree with them.
But you'd be wrong.
Now, my active time within the party started after Lord Rennard's tenure as Chief Executive. I've never met him, nor have I had any dealings with him online or by any other means. My only experience have been second and third hand tales from fellow-conference attendees, as well as the media reports. Despite this, he has repeatedly tried to add me as a 'friend' on Facebook*. I'm not alone in this, as it's been part of an ongoing pattern of extending his sphere of influence that has also see him take increasing part in the discourse of the party.
It is, of course, understandable that he is keen to redeem his reputation and he clearly has lots of experience and skills to offer. As a member of a party he (says he) loves, it's only natural that he wants to offer his talents to party.
But the party are well within their rights to decline such offers, and indeed has done through not re-appointing him to any official post.
The Lords could have exercised this right by opting not to not elect him to the Federal Executive. Why? Because it's not just Lord Rennard's reputation that needs repaired - it's that of the Liberal Democrats. Although the (flawed) process was completed and no action was ultimately taken - the party suffered a great deal of reputational damage. Furthermore, despite what Helena Morrissey has said, Rennard has not fully complied with the suggestion of Alistair Webster QC - a point well made by Jennie Rigg, here.
It's time Lord Rennard, and our other Lord's, realised that if - and for as long as - he is seen to hold influence, he holds back the ambitions of the party.
The party is holding a variety of reviews of how it works, including internal party governance. Getting things right will go a long way to making us electable again, not least through improving the internal culture of the party and allowing all our members opportunities to contribute. Getting them wrong can only hamper us.
The processes and structures that have brought us to this pass are no longer fit for purpose - and need to be overhauled. In the immediate term, it's hard to see what can be done** but one thing is clear: in pursuing his own rehabilitation, Lord Rennard has held back that of the party.
*as it happens, I very rarely add people I haven't actually met in real life as friends on Facebook in any case.
**but I'm emailing Tim and Sal to make my feelings known.