Extracting apologies from the unrepentant

Ripped PapersThe Liberal Democrats seem to be getting into an almighty tangle over the Rennard affair. Stephen Tall offers a good overview of the state of play.

It seems no one, apart from Lord Rennard and his chums, feels the outcome of the Webster inquiry is satisfactory. Many also feel the process of inquiry is problematic. Or, rather, if it is possible to conclude there are credible claims of inappropriate behaviour, but it is not possible to prove them to the required standard, and therefore nothing can be done, then by definition there must be something wrong with the process. The inquiry’s conclusion is not helpful in resolving this specific case. Nor does it help in sending the broader message that – whatever may have happened in the past – today’s party welcomes, respects and supports women.

This all compounds the original problem: the party’s woeful response when the allegations were first made.

The question is what to do now. There is most likely a case for changing internal party procedures for investigating this type of case. But it isn’t right to do so in pursue of a different outcome in the Rennard case. Applying new rules retrospectively is the worst type of arbitrary justice.

Webster recommended that Rennard apologize for behaviour that has caused distress. But that behaviour remains unspecified because details were provided in confidence. Rennard has refused to apologize. He would appear to be interpreting the Webster conclusion as exonerating him. Even though that clearly isn’t an interpretation that can be plausibly sustained.

The apology has now become pivotal.

Nick Clegg thinks Rennard should apologize, but he can’t make him. It seems Clegg feels that he can’t act against Rennard in other ways. Jonathan Calder draws the interesting contrast between this apparent powerlessness to act against Rennard and the way Clegg acted swiftly against Baroness Tonge. Clearly Clegg doesn’t always feel so constrained.

Libdem activities have taken to broadcast media and the letters pages of the newspapers to say that Rennard should have the whip withheld until he apologizes. My sense is that there are plenty more who are less vocal but of the same mind. There is also the suggestion that Rennard shouldn’t be allowed to rejoin Federal Policy Committee, particularly when it is in the throes of considering gender equality policy.

Whether these activists have all formed their negative view of Rennard’s actions purely on the basis of the events of recent days or are drawing from a deeper well of knowledge about relevant events and behaviours is a question that invites consideration. We can but speculate.

Despite this clamour, Rennard would appear to be planning to re-engage at the earliest opportunity. There would appear to be support for him doing so among a substantial minority of the members of FPC and in the Lords.

The party is clearly deeply split on the issue.

Webster found credible evidence that on occasions Rennard’s behaviour infringed the autonomy of women in inappropriate ways. But he did not find evidence of intention. My understanding of the law on harassment is that intention is largely irrelevant to the matter, it is the way in which behaviours are received that is the issue. It is certainly irrelevant for the illiberal measures in the nuisance bill that Lib Dem Ministers are currently forcing through Parliament. But that is beside the point.

I find Rennard’s stance over the last few days curious. I was thinking what I would do if I were in his position.*

If it were me, and I had the best interests of the party at heart, I would already have apologized.

I would apologize even if I didn’t feel that I was guilty of anything. I would do so in very specific terms. I would say that while it was never my intention to cause offence or discomfort, there have clearly been some elements of my behaviour that had, entirely inadvertently, caused offence. For that I’d apologize. Given the absence of specific details, it is hard to be sure what those behaviours were or how they were interpreted. However, within the limits of respecting the confidentiality of those who have been affected, I would endeavour to learn from this episode in order to avoid similar situations arising in future.

That is no great admission of anything. A cynic could argue that it almost fits that increasingly common political non-apology: “I apologize if you reacted negatively to my actions”. These days that is often what passes for an apology in political circles. But, actually, in this situation – where Rennard doesn’t have access to the details – it is probably more appropriate than is typically the case.

So why not do that? One can only speculate.

At the heart of the original complaints was abuse of power – the allegation that a middle-aged man, powerful within the party hierarchy, took advantage of that position in inappropriate ways. It would not be unreasonable to work with the hypothesis that the events of the last few days are equally a tussle over power.

Rennard would seem, for whatever reason, to be demonstrating the strength of his position, including his support in the Lords, and conversely the weakness of Clegg’s position.

The Telegraph ran a mischief-making piece the other day pointing out that if it weren’t for Rennard’s decision, as returning officer to the leadership contest, to disallow a significant number of postal votes delayed by the Christmas post, Clegg wouldn’t even be leader. And who knows how high up the list of obligations that decision sits. Perhaps young Nicholas needs to be reminded of one or two home truths.

If those sorts of machinations were in any way part of recent events then that is troubling.  It suggests that, whatever the public protestations, the future health, unity and reputation of the party are not necessarily the only, or even the principal, factor shaping decision making. In contrast we’re seeing this issue generate a substantial amount of distress and division.

Of course, it may just be that Rennard has absolutely no sensitivity to the issues or appreciation of the damage that his stance is causing. For someone of such legendary political sophistication that seems unlikely.

Whether or not such factors are in play, the way the situation is evolving is more than unfortunate.

And even if Rennard were to come out and apologize as some point, it would clearly have been extracted under duress. The opportunity to show anything like genuine contrition has passed. Few would take an apology now to be sincere. So I’m not sure what the virtue of making it pivotal is, apart from as part of a power play.

How to move forward positively, having got into this jam, it not at all clear.


* For the avoidance of doubt, I find my own suggestion that I might be in such a position on this issue utterly inplausible! I would be mortified to be in his position. The neanderthal gender dynamics to be found in some areas of party politics are one of its most objectionable characteristics.

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