A week after being elected as the House of Lords Parliamentary Party’s representative to the Lib Dem Federal Executive, Chris Rennard has resigned – effectively forced out after Tim Farron publicly called for him to go. Farron’s statement itself followed a demand by more than 200 Lib Dem members for a special conference to debate the issue. I meant to blog about this a few days ago, so now I’m coming to the topic the storm appears to have passed, but I think there are wider implications worth reflecting on.
First of all, well done Tim Farron. Perhaps it is a low bar by which to compare him, but Nick Clegg in similar circumstances would almost certainly have shrugged his shoulders and sat on his hands.
Secondly, well done to the Rock the Boat team. I don’t think anyone really wanted a special conference to resolve this, but if it had not been threatened then I suspect there would have been far greater pressure on the leadership to just let it slide.
I’m not interested in revisiting the whole Rennard Saga here; suffice to say that several of the women who made allegations against him are my friends, I believe them and I knew about the allegations for years before they were made public. They kept quiet, in part out of loyalty to the party and, contrary to some of the allegations being made by some of Rennard’s supporters, had no motivation to go out and damage the party when they decided to go to the media about it. And, despite the attempts by some to present this as some kind of Benny Hill sketch, we were not talking about pinched bottoms here, but genitalia being groped in the most degrading manner. This is important to emphasise, because these are the allegations which Alastair Webster described as “broadly credible” and which Rennard himself semi-apologised for being an “inadvertent” encroachment of personal space.
The one thing that everyone involved appears to agree with is that the Alastair Webster investigation into these allegations was a botched affair, admittedly in no small part due to the absurd disciplinary rules which dictated that for action to be taken the allegations had to reach the criminal standard of proof, as opposed to the balance of probabilities. In this regard, we have seen no justice done. Rennard himself can hide behind Helena Morrissey’s comments about the case as much as he likes, but without a process anyone has any faith in, or even the tiniest degree of contrition on his part, he simply cannot expect people to let him off the hook. The women who made these allegations have now all resigned the party. If allegations of his nature had been found “broadly credible” by a formal investigation into my conduct, I would personally have been mortified and followed them.
As it stands, Rennard has made it perfectly clear that he isn’t going anywhere. Without wishing to invoke Pyrrhus of Epirus, don’t rule out Rennard standing for the one-member-one-vote Federal Executive elections next year, and if he does then he will certainly be elected with substantially more than the 6.25% of the vote he will require to get a seat; I wouldn’t rule him out getting elected with the most first preference votes. As anyone who understands the single transferable vote system knows, that’s a pretty meaningless accolade – it wouldn’t make him any less the most hated candidate as well – but it is certainly something he will gleefully use to defend his position, and forcing him out will be substantially harder than it was this time. So while today’s resignation is a victory, it will possibly prove to be merely a reprieve.
As for the Lords Parliamentary Party more widely, I think the party is now waking up to a problem that may ultimately cause it even greater headaches in the long run. In short, the Lib Dem presence in the House of Lords is now 14 times larger than its presence in the House of Commons. The Commons team has little prospect of shifting a single vote this Parliament; the Lords team will enjoy a deciding role in every single vote. Their status and capacity will dwarf our MPs, and that’s a bad place psychologically for the party to be in.
What we saw last week was a power play; an attempt to put a leader, who they don’t especially like very much, squarely in his place. I suspect they were bolstered by the outcome of the tax credit vote a fortnight ago, in which the party was loudly cheering them on. It was crass, ineffectual and ultimately has made them all look very stupid (despite him winning his election by 2 votes to 1, not a single peer has come out and publicly defended their decision to back Rennard; although I understand that Tony Greaves has been making noises on Lib Dem forums), but don’t expect them to back down now.
I’ve always struggled with the mindset in the Lords. Its members always have the air of philanthropic paternalism, great eminences who have deigned to take an interest in mortal affairs. The fact that they are all there because of political patronage, is barely reflected upon. I’ve been involved in politics long enough to see the transformation, from loyal happy-clappy, nodding-dog committee tourist to grand independently minded (of course!) Lord of the realm, happen several times. The pomp and circumstance, the history and the chance to decide on important matters of legislation all contribute to entrench in them an almost messianic mindset.
This almost religious atmosphere is only shattered when they are forced to think of themselves in terms of real life. When I was on the Federal Executive, the Lords all-but downed tools over attempts to block them from working as multi-agency lobbyists and taking the Lib Dem whip. The common refrain was that they needed to work in public affairs because otherwise they’d be force to live a life in penury. By contrast, when the other big internal party of the day on whether to hold elections for Lib Dem peers was discussed, another refrain was that peers had to be independently wealthy to be able to afford to spend time in the Lords. Of course, as a matter of fact both claims were nonsense; pro-rata their daily allowances vastly exceeds the London median wage, and that’s before you take into account travel expenses.
What I’m suggesting here is that there is something fundamentally unhealthy about appointing people for life to sit in a legislative chamber. It inculcates a sense of entitlement and privilege which should have no place in our political system; it corrupts. As a party we ought to be wary of this.
Does it mean going as fair as the Liberal Prime Minister Trudeau has gone in Canada and withdraw the whip from them all? I can see some merit in that, but also a lot of risks – especially with the Commons party now so small. But I do think that our constitutional structures need to better reflect the fact that peers are unelected, and that that is a problem.
Personally, I’d like to see the appointees of the House of Lords PP to various internal committees as subject to a veto by the committee itself. If the Lords are going to play games like they did last week and attempt to impose someone who the leader has already stated he can’t work with, then we shouldn’t find ourselves in a constitutional crisis; the committee should simply tell them to think again. And this should apply to anyone, whether they are someone who has several allegations of sexual misconduct made against them, or simply someone who is a bit of an idiot. The purpose of the FE, Federal Policy Committee and others is to conduct party business in a professional manner; they don’t have time for stunts. Otherwise all that will happen is that those bodies will cease to be the ones where the real decisions get made, as we already see far too much is the case for the FE (in no small part, ironically enough, due to the way Chris Rennard conducted himself when he was the party’s chief executive).
The peers themselves vigorously opposed attempts to hold internal elections for Lib Dem appointments to the House of Lords; ironically, if they hadn’t done so, that would have increased their own political standing within the party. As it stands, while we should be grateful for their work in providing a bulwark against grotesque government legislation, we must be equally robust in opposing any further attempts by them for the tail to wag the dog. The alternative will be a party that continues to look out of touch and is more in love with being the whiggish occasional voice of calm within the establishment rather than a radical force for change.