The Lib Dems' identity crisis just got a lot more critical

Coalition was meant to be a journey to political maturity and professionalism. But it's amateur hour yet again.

Let’s start, as justice demands we must, with the assumption that Chris Rennard, the Liberal Democrat peer and former party chief executive, is not guilty of allegations of sexual harassment levelled against him. They are not proven and he denies them. Still, since we know that Nick Clegg’s office was informed of complaints of that nature back in 2008, there can only be two possible reasons why the matter was not thoroughly investigated.

The first is that no-one really took the allegations seriously. The second is that the allegations were deemed grave and credible but the importance of Rennard to the Lib Dem political operation and the fear of besmirching his and the party’s good name made thorough investigation feel politically too risky. Both interpretations imply contempt for people who say they have been sexually harassed. Either way the party leadership comes out of the whole business looking negligent and disorderly.

That impression has been amplified by Clegg’s handling of the affair – specifically, his tantalising statement on Sunday, dragging Danny Alexander into an opaque narrative of "non-specific" allegations and vaguely sought reassurances. The Lib Dem leader admitted to having known something all along but couldn’t say exactly what it was. It is hard to imagine a response more finely calibrated to send the press pack into a feeding frenzy.

Most of the British press doesn’t need much incitement to sink claw and fang into the Lib Dems. The timing of the scandal – breaking in the middle of a crucial by-election campaign – has lead to some reasonable suppositions of ulterior anti-Clegg agendas at work. The Eastleigh campaign certainly adds electoral piquancy to the story but the Lib Dems can hardly complain about that. Wishing it had not come out now implies that there might have been some better time for it to come out, which is really a way of wishing it had never come out at all and that instinct is what makes the whole thing scandalous in the first place.

This is bad for Clegg. But how bad exactly? Most of the people in Westminster I’ve spoken too in the last couple of days think the Lib Dems will still hold Eastleigh. It is almost impossible to tell whether any of the Rennard-related news cuts through on the Hampshire front line. If it does, I’d imagine a likely consequence will be mildly affiliated Lib Dem voters staying at home on polling day. Since the party’s strategy on the ground relies on a ferocious Get-Out-The-Vote operation, a surge in abstentions would be problematic.

But I suspect the Lib Dems' pain in this saga will go further and deeper than seeing their by-election campaign blown off course. A central problem for the party since joining coalition government has been clarity of identity. They surrendered the vague pieties of perpetual opposition in the hope of graduating into the status of grown-up party of government.

Clegg’s office has a clear enough sense of where they think he and the party can stand on the political spectrum. They are supposed to be more compassionate than the dinosaur Tories and more fiscally rigorous than profligate Labour. Opinion polls don’t yield much evidence that the Lib Dems are actually perceived that way but the aspiration is plausible enough. There is, in theory, a gap in the political market – a Blair-shaped hole – for third-way candidates who combine economic rigour with a social conscience.

But to fill that gap the Lib Dems must above all look like a serious political outfit. The pitch is non-ideological and pragmatic. They are supposed to be the go-to guys for coalition when the voters don’t fancy handing unalloyed power to either of the bigger parties. They are offering themselves as the moderate technocrats who aren’t afraid of compromise and keep Westminster grounded and centred. You aren’t necessarily expected to like the Lib Dems anymore, but, according to Clegg’s strategy, you are supposed to think it worthwhile having them around in government.

The defining feature of this offer is professionalism and it is the absence of that very quality that stands out from the mess they are in over Lord Rennard. The charges themselves (unproven and denied, it must be said), the original handling of complaints five years ago and the sprawling case study in crisis mismanagement over the past week all conjure up the impression of an organisation staffed with chancers and over-promoted amateurs.

It is already pretty hard to overstate the problems with the Lib Dem brand. Not enough people know what they stand for. (Do they even know anymore?) Clegg himself is still seen as a slippery character, a betrayer of promises and a trader of principle for the baubles of office. The electoral life raft that strategists were crafting was fashioned from claims to be delivering stable, effective government. Lib Dem plans for 2015 are based on the hope that eventually some voters will come to look at their record in office and judge them to have been decent and useful. Yet here they are in a colourful parade of shabby and useless.

Nick Clegg renewing his coalition vows earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Jeremy Corbyn has lost his NEC majority - and worse could be to come

The NEC promises to be a thorn in the Labour leader's side.

Jeremy Corbyn has lost his majority on the party’s ruling national executive committee, after a longstanding demand of the Welsh and Scottish parties sees the introduction of two further appointed posts on the NEC, one each of Kezia Dugdale, leader of Scottish Labour and Carwyn Jones, the Welsh First Minister and leader of the Welsh party. 

It means that, unlike during his first year as leader, Corbyn will not have a majority on the NEC. Corbyn acquired a small majority on the party’s ruling body at last year’s Labour conference, when Community, which represents workers in steel and the third sector, was voted off in favour of the BFAWU, which represents bakers. Added to the replacement of Hilary Benn with Rebecca Long-Bailey, that gave Corbyn a small but fairly reliable majority on the NEC. (It also led to Bex Bailey, the diminutive rightwinger who sat as Youth Rep, being dubbed “Rebecca Short-Bailey” by Corbynsceptic trade union officials.) 

In practice, the new NEC is now “hung”, as Corbynsceptics sacrificed their new majority last night when they elected Glenis Wilmott, leader of the European parliamentary Labour party, as chair. Corbyn’s opponents judge that controlling the chair, which rules on procedure and interpret’s the NEC’s rules, is worth more than a majority of one. 

Divisions will hinge upon the NEC’s swing voters – Alice Perry, who is elected by councilors, Ann Black, elected by members, and Keith Vaz, the chair of BAME Labour, and the new Welsh Labour representative, appointed by Jones. Corbyn may, therefore, have cause to regret fighting quite so hard to resist the changes this time.

“All we’re asking is that we should have the same rights as Jeremy, who appoints three,” Jones told me on Monday. At an acrimonious meeting at the NEC, Jones – who has been campaigning for the change since he became leader and has already been rebuffed back in 2011 – told Corbyn that the Welsh leadership had been kept waiting “too long” for the same rights as the Westminster party. Jones, unlike Dugdale, remained neutral in the leadership race. He explained to me that “I’d expect [London] to stay out of our elections, so you’ve got to return the favour”. 

Dugdale takes a different view, and, I’m told, feels that Corbyn’s allies in Scotland have been manoeuvring against her since she became leader. She has appointed herself to sit on the NEC, where she will be a consistent vote against Corbyn.

But worse may be to come for Corbyn in the trade union section. An underappreciated aspect of Labour politics is the impact of labour politics – ie, the jostling for power and members between affliated trade unions. What happens at the Trade Union Congress doesn’t stay there, and there has long been a feeling, fairly or unfairly, that Unite – Britain’s largest trade union – throws its weight around at the TUC. 

A desire to “cut Len down to size” is likely to make itself felt in Labour.The merger of Unite with Ucatt, the construction union, takes Unite’s share of the seats on the 33-person NEC to five including the treasurer Diana Holland.  Although Unite’s total membership is larger, it affliates fewer members to the party than Usdaw, the shopworkers’ union, and the GMB do. Usdaw is a reliable block to Corbyn on the NEC and the GMB is at odds with the leadership over Trident and fracking. 

All of which means that Corbyn’s path to wide-ranging rule changes may not be as clear as his allies might wish. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.