The Lib Dems can't afford to look this ridiculous

The Rennard shambles risks undermining the graduation into a serious party of government.

Obviously it is bad for the Liberal Democrats. But how bad? The handling of sexual harassment allegations against Chris Rennard has been disorderly from the beginning of the saga. Decoding exactly when senior figures knew there was a problem and unpicking what they did – or failed to do – about it hasn’t been easy. When the story first emerged last year there was a palpable tension at the top between the desperate hope that such a substantial figure in the party machine might turn out not to be a serial sleazebag and the awkward realisation that, to some extent, he was.

The disciplinary process has now magnified that tension into an institutional crisis. The party’s inquiry found, in summary, that Rennard was not guilty of anything that a court might deem criminal but was responsible for something unspecified warranting an apology. For failing to supply that apology, Rennard is now judged to have brought the party into disrepute and has been suspended. They couldn’t take action over the fire so they’re doing him for the smoke. Now he is reported to be considering suing.

When the scandal broke last February I wrote this blog, concluding that the episode damaged the Lib Dems by making them look ridiculous when their whole strategic offer was predicated on having become a party of mature professionals. The same applies today. Lack of principle and weakness of will are two of the stains that Lib Dem strategists have toiled hardest to scrub from the tarnished brand of their party and, crucially, their leader. Nick Clegg badly needed the Rennard case to be resolved in a way that left him looking resolute, liberal and democratic. So far it isn’t playing out that way.

It is worth remembering that the original allegations about Lord Rennard and Clegg’s handling of them were fashioned by some newspapers into an aggressive campaign against the party with an undisguised agenda to sabotage their chance in the Eastleigh by-election. Yet the Lib Dems held the seat. A Force 10 tabloid gale didn’t blow them off course. It is quite possible that this time too, the impact outside Westminster will be limited. Not many people beyond SW1 will have heard of Chris Rennard or care who he is.

I suspect the political damage will be subtle and insidious rather than immediately catastrophic. The whole episode is demoralising for activists who have already suffered countless doorstep indignities and electoral beatings as a result of coalition, without the compensating glamour of ministerial offices. (As George points out, it is also a reminder of how monolithically male the Lib Dem parliamentary cohort is, which isn’t a great look for a party wanting to sell itself as guarantors of equality and opportunity.) Then there is that lingering sense that the Lib Dems have been exposed as a bunch of amateurs when their proposed election campaign pitches them as the go-to guys for steady-handed centrist government. It is also a reminder of how small the party is – Rennard loomed large, seems to have known everyone and was, by all accounts, irreplaceable – and how few friends the Lib Dems have in the media.

In coalition the Lib Dems have amplified their power by ramping up conflict with the Tories. The Conservatives have played along by complaining that the junior partner has too much influence. Clegg’s team has recently begun celebrating success in rebutting the idea that they are mere hostages in a Cameron administration. The "poodle" metaphor is losing its currency (despite efforts by Labour to keep trading on it).

The Lib Dem leader has survived longer than many commentators and MPs expected. If opinion polls continue to show stalemate between Cameron and Ed Miliband, he stands a decent chance of negotiating his way back into government in another coalition. In recognition of that resilience, the Westminster media pack had recently started showing him and his party some grudging respect. The Rennard shambles has now provided an outlet for the kind of Clegg-bashing that comes more naturally to Fleet Street.

It is notable also that the Lib Dems have taken alternate rounds of abuse from different directions in recent years – from the left as collaborators in Tory austerity; from the right as obstacles to more carnivorous cuts – but are not often pilloried simultaneously from both sides. They hope in a general election campaign to enjoy ad hoc tactical alliances with one side against the other. Clegg could gang up with Miliband to denounce Tory hard-heartedness and with Cameron to deride Labour profligacy. But it is also possible, of course, that the two main parties collude in presenting the Lib Dems as a jumped-up gaggle of self-serving chancers who were lucky enough to blag their way into power for one term and now really ought to be consigned to obscurity. In that respect, the Rennard case is a warning to the Lib Dems. If they want to campaign as a serious party of government they can’t afford these episodes of sustained ridicule. 

Nick Clegg with Danny Alexander at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.