Why Lib Dem members are so grumpy

We're no longer the party where the membership really does set the agenda.

Being a foot soldier in the Lib Dems right now feels a bit like being your typical adolescent. We're experiencing a whole new host of sensations as the hormones of government course through our veins for the first time, and while these feelings are not entirely unpleasant, we really don't know quite where to put ourselves.

So like every self respecting teenager we get grumpy. And we take our mood out first and foremost on our nearest and dearest.

I hadn't even made it to Birmingham before I sensed the mood. Conference opened with a bid to suspend the official agenda, so we could debate the NHS - a motion which was carried, but with an insufficient majority to actually invoke suspension. This allowed everyone to claim victory and stay moody at the same time. And things had been in full swing for a whole 37 minutes before I saw the first tweet inviting a fellow member to up sticks and leave the party.

So what's making us all so grouchy?

Well, it's because we're the political party where the membership really does set the agenda. Where the same people who trudge up and down wet streets on grey Sunday mornings stuffing leaflets through letterboxes are the ones who get to tell the front bench what the party policy actually will be ( as opposed to should be). And where political expediency has been anathema to the good folk who pay their subs every year in exchange for the right to say 'this is where I stand'.

And we now find ourselves pursuing an agenda set in four hectic days of negotiation last May by eight men in a Whitehall conference room, half of whom were the enemy. Some here in Birmingham would argue with the term "half".

So while we glory in the fact that Lib Dems in government are delivering a liberal agenda on so many fronts - and delight every time a Tory MP or the Daily Mail go off on one over Lib Dem influence - when we gather together we are going to yell 'it's not fair' and 'you don't understand' at each other and cast wistful glances back to the good old days when we could all write policy to suit a perfect, yellow tinged world.

We just have to accept that those days are behind us. I guess it's part of the painful process of growing up.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common which has been named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.