The internal Lib Dem investigation, conducted by Alistair Webster QC into the conduct of Lord Rennard has pleased nobody. It doesn’t conclude that Lord Rennard was involved in misconduct, but doesn’t clear him either. As Charles Moore says it is like the old magistrates joke: “We find you not guilty: don’t do it again.”
Lord Rennard has not been able to see the Webster Report – nor have the rest of us. We are told that publication would have breached the Data Protection Act and that to have redacted personal details would “deprive it of any sensible context.” So much for transparency. Why not let him, and us, see as much as possible and make that judgment for ourselves?
There is nothing Lib Dem activists enjoy more than debating their Party rule book. Before finding themselves distracted by participating in the Government of our country they used to have little else to do. Their Party Constitution runs for 284 pages – each dot and comma lovingly earnestly wrangled over.
It does include the provision that membership may be “revoked” by:
Conduct which has brought, or is likely to bring, the Party into disrepute.
It adds that the Lib Dem peers can make their own regulations for proceedings but with the proviso of “not being inconsistent with this Constitution.” Allowing someone expelled as a Party member to retain the Whip in the Lords would surely be an inconsistency.
So the Lib Dems should first be transparent about the evidence. Then they should make a decision if Lord Rennard has brought them into disrepute. If they feel he has then they should be entitled to kick him out. Of course political parties must follow their own rules but the courts should allow them reasonable discretion. Why would be the point of Lord Rennard going to court, in the spirit of Groucho Marx, to force them to allow him to continue as a member if they don’t want him?
Political parties should be able to make their own decisions about such matters – those who disapprove don’t have to vote for them.
As it is the Lib Dems have managed to dismay friends of Lord Rennard without restoring confidence to their women members that they will be treated with respect.
The opinion polls suggest that the Lib Dems will lose many of their seats at next election. Let us allow for some recovery in their ratings by next year and of them doing better, in relative terms, in the seats they hold. The Eastleigh byelection suggests this would be reasonable. Even so significant losses must be in prospect. So how many women Lib Dem MPs will there be?
They do have some women candidates for Lib Dem held seats. In the Lib Dem MP Annette Brooke is standing down in Mid Dorset and North Poole and their candidate is Vikki Slade. But the Lib Dem majority last time was only 269. Julie Porksen has been chosen in Berwick-upon-Tweed where the Lib Dem majority was 2,690 – which still sounds modest given that it must include some personal vote for Sir Alan Beith who has been the MP since 1973. Lisa Smart in Hazel Grove may have a better chance in Hazel Grove – but even there the Lib Dem majority of 6,371 does not sound that solid without the “incumbency factor.”
What of the current women Lib Dem MPs? They only have seven out of their total of 57 MPs. I have already noted that Mrs Brooke is standing down. Lorely Burt in Solihull has a majority of 175. Tess Munt in Wells has a majority of 800. Sarah Teather is standing down in Brent Central.
Jo Swinson has a majority, over Labour, of 2,184 in East Dunbartonshire. Perhaps given the Coalition Government she may persuade some of 7,431 who voted Conservative last time to switch to her as a tactical vote? It still looks tricky for her. Lynne Featherstone in Hornsey and Wood Green (majority 6,875) and Jenny Willott in Cardiff Central (majority 4,576) may try the same.
Of the 20 “safest” Lib Dem seats only Hazel Grove is due to have a Lib Dem woman candidate at the next election.
I wouldn’t say it is likely that after the General Election the Lib Dem MPs will be male only club. But it is plausible. The Lord Rennard fiasco can scarcely help the Party overcome its problem with women.