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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What the Operation Black Vote poster row tells us about race in Britain

The poster aimed to draw attention to the cause of BAME voter participation - instead it stirred something deep in the British psyche.

Political advertising campaigns need to be controversial, but go too far and the fall-out can be disastrous. Critics of the new “white thug” billboard campaign, aimed at encouraging ethnic minorities to vote in the EU referendum, think that Operation Black Vote (OBV), the group behind the campaign, had made a spectacular misjudgement. “Racist and divisive” were some of the milder reactions on Twitter. Soon UKIP’s Nigel Farage jumped in calling it “disgusting”, and new London mayor Sadiq Khan claimed it “reinforced stereotypes.”

I took a long hard look at the poster after witnessing the torrent of hurt and anguish it provoked, from white and ethnic minority people alike. To me the poster depicted an angry neo-Nazi type young man fuelled with race hate, and an Asian elder stoic in the face of prejudice, like so many of her generation have been since arriving in the 1970s. It was set in a working class environment familiar to me, a place where even today Asian shopkeepers face regular racist hostility and the far right still organise on the extreme fringes of London in every respect.

The poster is reminiscent of a century-long grassroots struggle against fascism and the intersecting drive to raise the anti-fascist vote from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities and the progressive working class. From the battle of Cable Street in 1936 to the ousting of British National Party councillors from Barking and Dagenham town hall in 2010. Raising the BAME registration rate and vote is a challenge because of disillusionment with a political system that appears not to care about the challenges of racial barriers that cause such unequal outcomes in employment, housing and health.

OBV’s billboard poster seemed to be a collision between this experience of the anti-racist struggle and a slick ad-man. I was troubled; why should so many people see ‘racism’ in the campaign where I saw none? Surely the poster would only be racist if the thug in the image represented white people in general? To me he represented only the sort of hardcore racist who hated both my African mother and my English father for being with her. The sort of racist that hated England too. I asked myself who, in their right minds, could feel any affinity with such a vile character?

True, there were only two people in the image, one white person and one person of colour, but this wasn’t black versus white, it was BAME versus hate and prejudice. There was no earthly reason why the fascist’s skin colour should be an insult to non-fascists who only share the same ‘race’.

Throughout my life I’ve heard people of colour being accused of having a chip on their shoulder, and I’ve been accused of the same. We are routinely stereotyped for seeking out imagined racism, of being overly-sensitive and failing to understand the nuances behind something negative towards black or Asian people. Yet the deluge of anger unleashed by OBV’s campaign led me to conclude that the poster’s critics were doing exactly what BAME people have long stood accused of.

Some cried ‘if the poster showed a black/Muslim thug pointing angrily at an old white granny there would be uproar’. These are clearly people oblivious to the negative portrayal of BAME people daily amid no uproar whatsoever. Occasionally a big household brand might end up in the news for peddling racial stereotypes but mostly it goes unremarked but not unnoticed by those impacted by racism.

If racism is power plus prejudice why were so many consumed by the belief that the poster was racist? Why this overwhelming feeling that white people are being treated unfairly? After all, every study of privilege shows that power rests firmly with white people.

Part of the answer can be found in the impact of changing demographics, as illustrated by the BBC documentary this week The Last Whites of the East End which explored white working class feelings that BAME families are taking over and that traditional white English culture was being erased.

The Cockneys fleeing to Essex to ‘be with their own’ fail to comprehend that it is they themselves who are accelerating Newham’s BAME proportion through their white flight. It is a flight sparked by alarm that their ideal balance between white and colour is out of kilter, so they move and thereby accelerate segregation. White British are still the largest single ethnic group in Newham but they don’t see it that way because everyone else – Somalians and Pakistanis, Turks and Nigerians – are lumped together in one homogenous ‘other’ no matter how different their culture is from one another.

The shifting plates of race, population change and migration are building fault lines of tension that manifest in tremors of fear about white people being under attack, of being strangers in their own country. This growing sensitivity can be seen in the reaction to OBV’s poster (‘look, they’re treating us unfairly’) or Britain’s Got Talent’s Alesha Dixon called a black group “sexy chocolate men” (‘if I said that it would be racist, so surely she’s racist too’).

Nigel Farage and hundreds of Twitterers who objected to the poster don’t identify with the fascist in the image but they do feel sensitive to accusations that white people are being discriminated against – despite all the evidence to the contrary – and want to stand up for white people’s feelings, integrity and rights. They felt slighted by the juxtaposition of the white thug and serene Asian granny and mistakenly see it is an attack on them when it wasn’t really about them at all.

Where once it mattered not whether white people were portrayed positively or negatively, because white was the colourless default, now the white colour is racialised simply by proximity to someone of a different colour on the other end of a children’s swing.

As commentators and academics grapple with what integration means in a changing nation where BAME-majority cities are just years away, and white families with money flee to less diverse pastures leaving behind an increasingly threatened white working class, the demand for equal treatment for white people will inevitably grow. After decades of unfair discrimination against people of colour where politicians have failed to act, they are finally standing up for the feelings of a minority. A white minority, if not in proportionality then in certainly in mentality.

OBV’s poster aimed to draw attention to the cause of BAME voter participation. Instead it stirred something deep in the British psyche, a feeling that in a multicultural society disrespect of whiteness is a sign that white privilege is under assault. Was the poster racist? No, but it did inadvertently touch a nerve.

Lester Holloway previously worked for Operation Black Vote, and was Editor of the African and Caribbean newspaper New Nation. He is writing in a personal capacity and tweets at @brolezholloway

Lester Holloway is a Liberal Democrat councillor in Sutton and an executive member of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats. He tweets @brolezholloway