Note: this is not about sexual harassment, the primary focus of the recent Lib Dem harassment scandal. As with the recent BBC scandal, sexual harassment is the most serious form of harassment (with child abuse being the most serious form of that), but may only reflect wider problems with harassment and bullying in general. My post focuses only on my own experience; I do not wish to diminish the even more serious problems elsewhere.
The conclusions of Helena Morrisey’s independent inquiry have now been published. It is a valuable document. It will make painful reading for Lib Dems, but also necessary reading. I say this as Witness 14 in the final report. I wanted to provide useful suggestions rather than just documenting the obstacles I had encountered trying to bring an end to one Lib Dem’s years of harassing local activists, who do not have his profile at the national level. It was good, then, to see one of my comments quoted:
It is worth noting that as with any large organisation that requires good management, the Liberal Democrats are an enterprise like any other. Its size requires a degree of bureaucracy and process. Its goals require commitment and contribution from its members. To realise its potential it must align electoral goals with its core values, rather than treat the former as a reason to discard the latter.
I believe that this is an essential principle if the Lib Dems are to tackle the problem of harassment. On multiple occasions, I have read minutes or heard a leader in a room say something like, “Don’t get distracted by harassment complaints; what’s important is coming together as a team to win the next election.”
This can be tempting advice to give: it is forward looking, it is goal-oriented, it speaks to the group rather than isolates the individual. It is advice given with good intentions, and its hard edge stems an understandable frustration with an ongoing dispute (in the cases I am familiar with, at least).
However, it is advice I’ve little patience for. If I just wanted to win, I’d join a party with a better chance of winning. To paraphrase the consitution, the goal is to promote liberal and democratic values by winning elections – and that is the order of priorities. A candidate that accepts the bullying and harassment of activists as an acceptable part of their campaign is not a Liberal Democrat worth electing. In practice, the kind of leader I will follow doesn’t simply expect their team to follow on behind. When the situation demands it, they must also have the courage and discipline to stand up to their peers and their friends.
In more practical terms, if your leaders can’t lead, you’ll find that your activists will often have better things to do with their time. The consequent reduction in your campaigning capacity, especially if they simply quit, will severely impact your ability to win an election. So the ball is now in the party leadership’s court to demonstrate that courage, to act with that discipline. They need to do three things.
First, they need to recognise their failure, even though they may believe they have already done so. We will be easily mocked if a single MP sticks to the line of argument that essentially says, “We don’t know what happened, because we didn’t investigate anything, document any complaints or take any minutes .. but we’re pretty sure we did the right thing in the non-specific circumstances.”
The failings are not unique to the Liberal Democrats. The leadership should act confidently in the knowledge that any political opponent who attempts to portray this as a problem unique to the Lib Dems will quickly have a few of their own skeletons dragged out from their closet. Nick Clegg has made a good start. Let’s hope it continues.
Second, they need to implement Helena Morrissey’s recommendations. There are nine specific recommendations, which I’ll summarise in three statements based on the report’s own conclusions:
- Prevent bullying and harassment by making it clear, in party rules and guidelines at all levels, that it constitutes grounds for disciplinary proceedings, and that women and minorities feel valued by the party.
- Proactively address the issue, by setting up a Pastoral Care Office, and generally ensuring complaints and issues of under-representation are given enough resources.
- Monitor the problem: ensure records are kept, surveys are conducted and results published.
Third, they should bear in mind that no commitment has been made to hold anyone accountable. This is due to the nature of the inquiry, but its parameters carry a risk. The conclusion of Helena Morrissey’s work must not be to send a message to harassers and bullies that says, “Well done, guys, you got away with it – consider your slate wiped clean.”
To give a flavour of the kind of behaviour that the party has failed to deal with, here’s the formal complaint I made in my final attempt to hold a senior figure to account:
[The bully] consistently makes disproportionate and arbitrary judgements, and then seeks to impose them upon others. His chosen means are consistent with case law and academic research on harassment: reckless disregard for the truth; frequent use of complaints procedures; witholding information; belittling and hurtful comments; accusations of laziness; overloading with work; touting his superior skills and experience; frequent reference to his status and connections; consistent application of double standards.
This is also the essence of authoritarian governance: making decisions based on personal interests (including retaliation against perceived slights), and forcing them upon others without regard to fairness, democratic structures, due process or facts. It is entirely contrary to the fundamental values of the Liberal Democrats.
It is notable that his criticisms are often harsh and sometimes even cruel: the elderly councillor for not working hard enough; the long term unemployed suffering mental health issues for being unreliable; the anti-war activist for not being a real “campaigner”; the young gay member for being headstrong; the dyslexic for bad spelling.
His is the voice of entrenched privilege: arrogant, mocking, and unapologetic.
This is a flavour of what went on. As you might imagine, it made life difficult for us as a local party. The problem is not just one person being “difficult to deal with”, to use one of the more popular euphemisms. In terms of actual consequences, we have had everything from bad press, to poor reactions on the doorstep, to local members being kept out of submitting motions to conference. Allowing one member to harass others has an impact on both the day-to-day operation of the party, and its reputation in general. Harassment and bullying can be devastating to a campaigning organisation.
Sadly, due to the range of factors described in Ms Morrisey’s report, the regional and national parties chose to “handle” the complaints surrounding this person, rather than hold him to account. Mine was not the first formal complaint. The first of several that I am aware of came from a young female volunteer, who subsequently left the party. No-one, including the person at the heart of all the complaints, received fair treatment.
The party did eventually hold a disciplinary panel. However, it deviated wildly from the documented process: the investigation leading up to it took too long; witness statements weren’t presented to the panel; local activists were banned from the hearing in case they biased proceedings, and so the hearing was held without witnesses. All of these were the consequences of individuals seeking to do their best for the party, rather than doing their best to follow the documented procedure.
To quote the report, “While this may appear a benign mistake, it has caused problems to fester unresolved, to the detriment of all involved.”
I hope the party leadership goes far beyond treating this as a scandal to be handled. Instead, it should take it as an opportunity to build a better, stronger organisation, that can be held up itself as an example of the strength of liberal, democratic values.