Sunday, January 19, 2014

Rennard: How is the party going to get through this?

I've had a post in drafts for the last 3 days about the fallout from Alistair Webster's statement but my heart has been so heavy that it's only now I feel able to complete it. I have to thank Lord Carlile of Berriew for his help in that regard. His statements across various media have been so unnecessarily aggressive, rude, bullish and, frankly, unhelpful to anyone that he's helped clarify my thoughts. There is also an irony about the man who so strongly supported the introduction of secret courts complaining about secret justice in this matter. To be clear, he and Chris Rennard have seen all the evidence. They and the women concerned should probably see the report.

What I'm going to say is as someone who has been broadly sympathetic to Chris Rennard in the almost 20 years I've known him and should be viewed in that context. I have no scores to settle and I've always had a cordial relationship with him.

This past year has been excruciating for me and for the party. There are people I care about on all sides of this. I may not be directly involved, but I feel like I've been emotionally boshed on the head with a sledgehammer. I shudder to think what it must be like for the people who have been at the centre of it all.

The party is in danger of pulling itself apart over this. On one hand, there are a growing number of people who feel that Chris Rennard should apologise as asked to do so by Alistair Webster QC before being admitted back into the Lords group. I was really surprised that the Scottish Liberal Democrats Executive agreed unanimously yesterday to back Nick Clegg's position on this. Although we confined our motion to that, there was a call to also condemn Lord Carlile for his deeply offensive public statements.

On the other hand, there are those who genuinely believe Rennard to be innocent and to have been found so by the enquiry. They are fiercely protective of him and view the complainants, as our friend Lord Carlile does, as "bad losers" or possibly even worse.

Chris Rennard has not been found innocent

In order to try and find a way through this, I think we have to bear in mind that Chris Rennard has not been found innocent. At best, Alistair Webster's findngs are more akin to the Scottish "not proven" verdict and the reaction of people on both sides demonstrate very clearly why such a verdict is entirely unsatisfactory. Let's look at what the QC said:
Let me be clear from the outset that the evidence suggests that Lord Rennard’s behaviour has caused distress to a number of women, so much so that they came forward several years after the events in question.
His final conclusion:
 My view, judging the evidence as a whole, is that there is a less than 50% chance that a charge against Lord Rennard could be proved to the requisite standard.
In my opinion, the evidence of behaviour which violated the personal space and autonomy of the complainants was broadly credible. However, it is my judgment, considering all of the evidence collected, that it is unlikely that it could be established beyond reasonable doubt that Lord Rennard had intended to act in an indecent or sexually inappropriate way. Without proof of such an intention, I do not consider that such a charge would be tenable.
I stress that I am not finding that the evidence of the complainants was unreliable. I have specifically discounted suggestions made during the investigation that the incidents had been invented as part of a political campaign against Lord Rennard.
It is my view that Lord Rennard ought to reflect upon the effect that his behaviour has had and the distress which it caused and that an apology would be appropriate, as would a commitment to change his behaviour in future.
Not innocence, but evidence that suggests that Rennard's behaviour caused distress, that he should reflect on this, apologise and give assurances about future behaviour.

I agree with Stephen Tall's main conclusion - it's a mess. The party's processes have been found to be totally inadequate to deal with allegations of this nature and that must be remedied as soon as possible.

I think that the way in which Alex Carlile has interpreted this statement has been insensitive, inaccurate and utterly offensive. His manner is entirely dismissive of the women concerned and is especially inappropriate given that Rennard said yesterday via his speedily deleted Facebook account that he considered making an apology 3 years ago. In today's Daily Mail, he compares the party's processes to North Korea and Henry VIII's torture. He says that Rennard has been made ill over the last year. Is he therefore suggesting that the party should not even have investigated these allegations? Being under investigation is stressful for anyone.

Had Rennard accepted Webster's conclusion and issued a genuine, credible apology rather than forget about the second part of the statement, he could have been back on the path to better health and less stress. Instead, he chooses to threaten further legal action and dig his heels in, presumably on the advice of Carlile and others. That could have been an end to the matter, he could have been re-admitted to the Lords group and everyone could have moved on. That same stubbornness and single focus which contributed to his fantastic election winning success for this party has an altogether more (self)-destructive side now. Simply, when someone is told that there is evidence that their behaviour has caused distress, their first reaction should be to apologise for that distress, whether it was intended or not. He may feel that his previous vehement denials have painted him into a corner. Actually, I think a genuine apology would be well received and the courage it takes to issue it respected. Even now.

Privileged few closing ranks - not a good look

The idea that the Lords could let Chris back in without an apology was always hugely worrying for me. I wrote to Jim Wallace saying that such a move would be very damaging for our party. We, the party who are supposed to challenge vested interests, would see a privileged few close ranks to protect one of their own. If they do that, all the fantastic work that they do will be,  from then on,  tarnished. 

It may well be that the Lords will vote tomorrow to allow Chris Rennard back into the group, defying Nick Clegg's very clear statement that they should not without an apology. That would be really unfortunate. Even if they do bow to the leader's view and that expressed by the 120 party members (me included), they will be in mutinous mood which doesn't bode well for future relations.

The Lords have different motivations for the view they take. In fact, I think an analysis of them in a Venn diagram would be quite interesting. First of all, you have those who think they're living in a world of Benny Hill and Carry on films,where women's breasts and bottoms are fair game.This Facepalm Brigade simply don't get the concept of sexual harassment and think that it's all a load of fuss about nothing. It scares me that people with that sort of view make our laws, let alone that they're in our party. To be fair, these sorts of people exist in all parties and in wider society, but still. 

Secondly, and this is a group of people I think we need to treat with some sympathy, Rennard's actual friends. Some of them have known him well for decades. Some of them owe their entire careers to him. For various reasons, they have a strong bond with him and a fierce loyalty to him. Before you condemn them, think how it would be if your friend or your dad or your brother was in Rennard's situation. Of course you would support them in almost all cases and you would feel very protective of them and angry at anyone who wasn't. These are very human reactions and emotions and I think we need to cut those people a bit of slack. That doesn't give them the right to be offensive in public, and to be honest, most of them have either said nothing or been respectful, but I can see why they would want to vote to readmit someone they care about. It doesn't make it right to do so, though, because, as Liberal Democrat parliamentarians they also have a duty to the party. 

Thirdly, and this is where it's worth putting the effort in to build positive relationships with people, not all our Lordships have time for Nick Clegg and Tim Farron, not least for the way that they spoke about them during the doomed  process of trying to get Lords reform through. Then, they suggested that Lords just turned up and got £300 a day tax free and wasn't this awful? Actually, our Lords work bloody hard, seriously improve legislation and do a huge amount of good. Nick has recognised that latterly, but he's still not flavour of the month in the Upper House. 

Whatever their perspective, I really hope that they will see that they will harm the party if they allow Chris Rennard back without an apology.

So how do we get through?

There is an obvious path to peace.

It's not too late for Chris Rennard to apologise, and to do it well. I really think that he should call off Carlile, say no thanks to Chris Davies MEP's pledges of money to fund high court actions and just do it for his own sake as well as everybody else's.Those women should get the apology that they, according to the person who has seen all the evidence, deserve. Stephen Tall rightly pointed out that an apology extracted under duress wouldn't make any difference or satisfy anyone. What I'm suggesting is that he actually makes it sincerely. It takes a lot of courage to unpaint yourself from a corner, but it can be done. 

There's a report in the Independent on Sunday which states that Chris's supporters are saying that he can't apologise in case he gets sued. If you think about it, this is quite insulting to the women. This has never been about money. They were purely motivated by concerns about the safety of women in the party and its failure to treat allegations of sexual harassment seriously, pure and simple. Having said that, if that perception is a barrier to an apology, I wonder if it would help if they were able to say explicitly that they would not seek civil damages. 

However, and I've changed my view on this in the last 24 hours, I don't think it's appropriate, even with an apology to allow him back into the Lords group just yet. Not after the way his legal adviser has been talking all over the media, misrepresenting what Alistair Webster said. And the comparisons he's made to Henry VIII's torturers and to North Korea are really ridiculous. I mean, he's saying that an oppressive legal system which gives people no freedom and where political rivals face the firing squad is better than the disciplinary processes of the Liberal Democrats. That Henry VIII's people torturing in search of evidence is better than the admittedly imperfect procedure that's just taken place. Such statements make me question the credibility of  everything else that he says.

A time of contrition after all the bluster is now called for.

I think we also need to try and take the temperature down somehow. People need to try and be calm and temperate in their language. There are very strong emotions involved in this and we need to respect where others are coming from and frame our remarks accordingly. It is possible to have these differences without letting them overwhelm our ability to function and work together.

The four women have now filed an appeal against the process. I don't know the details of it, but we'll have to wait for due process on that. There may well be further evidence, further hearings and legal action in the public courts. 

The European elections take place 4 months on Wednesday. We all need to work together to get a decent result in that and the many sets of local elections also taking place. We need to get our focus back off this and on to the doorstep. That'll be a lot easier if the Lords do the right thing tomorrow, whether they want to or not. 


Left Lib said...

As you know Caron we mostly agree on this. I just want to pick up on a few things.
First of all the story about the North Korean execution by dogs is almost certainly false according to the BBC website. However the general point is valid, it is ridiculous to compare with North Korea.
More importantly I have not seen how it is possible for CR to give an apology that the women will find acceptable that does not specifically refer to what they said he did to them. I have seen people try to write such an apology on his behalf by making general non-specific points, but if he does that how does his victims know he is apologising for the right thing?

Unknown said...

Ok, thanks. Hadn't seen that N Korea thing but have now edited.

I think there is a way of doing it that allows everyone to feel that this is a serious apology.

Rob Blackie said...

Great article Caron.

Tracy said...

It seems to me that even if Chris did apologise the women would still persue a civil case against him and the the apology may work against him in that situation. So not much point if the women are hell bent on dragging this out anyway.

If an apology would mean the end of it then great, apologise, others there's no point if it jusy goes on and on and on damaging the party.

Unknown said...

Tracy, the women have been trying to get a resolution for years. It's 11 years this year since incident that Bridget Harris complained about. It's not been them dragging it out. Chris could have apologised last Wednesday rather than have this clog up the news agenda ever since.

This has never been about money for the women.

Linda Jack said...

"Simply, when someone is told that there is evidence that their behaviour has caused distress, their first reaction should be to apologise for that distress, whether it was intended or not." Spot on,I am sure that is what most of us would do.

Rebecca Taylor said...

I have deliberately not commented on this matter thus far as I had no direct experience of any inappropriate behaviour by Chris, nor did I know more than vaguely any of the women involved, so was completely unaware of this before it hit the media.

However, I am happy to say I strongly agree with what Caron has written. I hope that all involved can find a way to move forward that can be acceptable to all.

Unknown said...

I think you have written a very good post, though Clegg's standing among Peers is also part of the problem - many do not hold him in high regard, meaning he lacks authority to lead properly.

Jenny James said...

Great blog Caron. I wonder if it would help the naysayers understand why CR should apologise if we changed the context.
What if he were accused of using foul language in the hearing of others? He may not realise how offensive others find it. He would certainly not be meaning to cause offence. But surely, anybody who has this pointed out to them would immediately apologise for their behaviour and STOP IT?

Having said that, how anybody (in the 21st century) can reach such a position in any organisation and not know where the line of interpersonal behaviour is drawn is beyond me.

Paul Walter said...

"On one hand, there are a growing number of people who feel that Chris Rennard should apologise as asked to do so by Alistair Webster QC before being admitted back into the Lords group. I was really surprised that the Scottish Liberal Democrats Executive agreed unanimously yesterday to back Nick Clegg's position on this. Although we confined our motion to that, there was a call to also condemn Lord Carlile for his deeply offensive public statements.

On the other hand, there are those who genuinely believe Rennard to be innocent and to have been found so by the enquiry. They are fiercely protective of him and view the complainants, as our friend Lord Carlile does, as "bad losers" or possibly even worse."

There are a lot of people staggering around bemused in the middle of those two views as well.

Your points are very good and I greatly respect their strength.

Chris Rennard isn't going to apologise at this stage and the Lords won't withdraw the whip from him. So we're left so that the only thing that will bring some form of closure is a facilitated airing of all the grievances and rebutals as proposed by Liberal Democrat Women (of whom I am a member). Until that is done, we may as well focus our energy and passion on other topics.

This view from Amy Kitcher is worth reading, if you haven't already:

Scott Walker said...

Thank you for such a thoughtful post Caron.

For the record I am neither in the “growing number of people who feel that Chris Rennard should apologise” or the camp of “those who genuinely believe Rennard to be innocent”. In fact I have no view on his guilt/innocence or the level of it. I simply feel the whole situation is unsatisfactory where he’s neither been cleared nor found to have some wrong-doing in a disciplinary sense.

I hadn't realised that Rennard had seen the evidence. My main issue with asking him to apologise was that if he didn't know the exact nature of the allegations he was being asked to apologise for, any apology, even for something unintentional, would be false and he would only be doing so under duress.

I can't find anything in either of the statements from the QC which says Rennard has seen the evidence. Perhaps you could help me with that please if I'm being daft and missed something.

I completely agree with you about taking the temperature down and for people to use more suitable language - on all sides of the debate. It seems to me that a more thoughtful, tempered discussion; such as you have initiated will eventually bring about a conclusion which will not see everything implode.

Steve Way said...

Hi Caron,
You say "Chris Rennard has not been found innocent" surely no one is found innocent, they are presumed innocent until proven guilty. The problem here is that without a hearing allowing robust examination of the claims by all parties there is no finding - therefore he is innocent.

Finding that the evidence is credible should be the first step not the justification for action.

I also worry about the media manipulation by both sides. If the claimed email trail in the guardian is true then it will only deepen the trenches. It will also show that an apology will never be enough, they want him our of the Lords.

Nick Hollinghurst said...

Caron, I posted the following text on C Rennard's facebook page this morning.
This is politics. It not an intellectual process, it's an emotional one. If you have to start relying on legal arguments as to whether there is a 49% or 51% chance of some judicial resolution then you have already lost in the forum of public opinion. It is always an error of judgement for senior persons to put themselves in positions where their reputation could be compromised. Having done that and having reached what is at best a verdict of "Not Proven" it is a further and grosser error of judgement to pretend that "business as usual" can be resumed. In your case, Chris, to attack the leader and the party into the bargain is unforgivable. Your behaviour caused this and now your behaviour can solve it. Please make the right choice.

Paul Walter said...

Scott Walker, this was news to me as well. But there is a difference between the raw evidence and Alistair Webster's report which I don't think Chris, or Carlile or Tim or Nick have seen (as opposed to his summary conclusion - which was made public).

Thomas Prag said...

Caron - well put. it is sad that a party I joined partly because it is intrinsically tolerant and understanding of individuals is tearing itself up over this. There are hurt people on both 'sides'. we need to understand why and WE need to help them move on. well done.

Sarah Ludford said...

By far the best and wisest commentary I have read on this whole awful sorry mess - 4 months before Euro and (in Lon) all-up local elections. Please just let it be resolved honourably as fast as possible

Manfarang said...

I have been a member of the Liberals and Liberal Democrats for years. I have never seen any woman member abused in anyway at any party events.How is it now there is the need for special protection?
I have been aware of some of the abuse in the world that women really face but I don't think all this stuff about Rennard is going to help them in any way.


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