Finger-jabbing at HQ over the party's handling of the Rennard allegations isn't right. Photo: Getty
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Blaming Lib Dem HQ over the Rennard allegations is wrong; party members must step up

In a party that prides itself on the power its members have over procedure, perhaps it's they who should be blamed for the handling of the Rennard case.

The men in grey sandals (as I saw my Westminster betters in the Lib Dem party memorably described this morning) are getting it in the neck again.

What’s sparked the party’s ire is the news that Susan Gaszczak has resigned, together with her entire family (including her father Brian, a councillor for 24 years up until May and one of my own local representatives), over the party's handling of the Rennard allegations.

Dedicated, passionate, liberal to the core, Susan is exactly the sort of grassroots activist who has built the party up into a party of government. Without the thousands of members knocking on doors, shoving leaflets through doors and manning stalls on wet high streets in November championing the Lib Dem cause, we are nothing. There is a strong sense of irony that the person most folk in the party credit with building that local community machine has been the catalyst for Susan’s resignation. There are no winners here.

And there seems little doubt that whatever the rights and wrongs of the issues that have led us to this unhappy place, the due process and disciplinary machinery of the Lib Dems has once again been shown to be lacking. Any complaints process in which progress can be measured in years rather than days, weeks or months would seem questionable in the extreme.

But I don’t think on this occasion, finger-jabbing at HQ is the right answer here. I’m not sure it’s the Westminster elite is where we should be apportioning blame.

I think it might be my fault.

You see, we’re meant to be the party of the members. The party where the local activists decide what goes. The party where it's meant to be impossible for the Westminster folk to "win" policy debates or decide what goes in the manifesto, because the members will decide that at conference, thank you very much. Or where, if enough folk feel we lack credible leadership, a mechanism exists to trigger a leadership election, without volunteers having to run a seat-of-the-pants totalizer to see what the mood of the party is.

And if those things don’t happen, or if we put up with MPs and peers defying party policy when they vote in parliament and we don’t do anything about it, or if we see that seven years after a complaint is first made against a senior member of the party, the procedure for dealing with that complaint is still running… well then the people who make policy, who shape procedure and who have the power to do something about it who should take the blame.

And that’s me. And the other 40,000 plus members of the party.

I suspect it may be time for the men (and women) in grey Doc Martens to step up to the plate. Because if we don’t sort this stuff out, no one else is going to do it for us.

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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Why Clive Lewis was furious when a Trident pledge went missing from his speech

The shadow defence secretary is carving out his own line on security. 

Clive Lewis’s first conference speech as shadow defence secretary has been overshadowed by a row over a last-minute change to his speech, when a section saying that he “would not seek to change” Labour’s policy on renewing Trident submarines disappeared.

Lewis took the stage expecting to make the announcement and was only notified of the change via a post-it note, having reportedly signed it of with the leader’s office in advance. 

Lewis was, I’m told, “fucking furious”, and according to Kevin Schofield over at PoliticsHome, is said to have “punched a wall” in anger at the change. The finger of blame is being pointed at Jeremy Corbyn’s press chief, Seumas Milne.

What’s going on? The important political context is the finely-balanced struggle for power on Labour’s ruling national executive committee, which has tilted away from Corbyn after conference passed a resolution to give the leaders of the Welsh and Scottish parties the right to appoint a representative each to the body. (Corbyn, as leader, has the right to appoint three.)  

One of Corbyn’s more resolvable headaches on the NEC is the GMB, who are increasingly willing to challenge  the Labour leader, and who represent many of the people employed making the submarines themselves. An added source of tension in all this is that the GMB and Unite compete with one another for members in the nuclear industry, and that being seen to be the louder defender of their workers’ interests has proved a good recruiting agent for the GMB in recent years. 

Strike a deal with the GMB over Trident, and it could make passing wider changes to the party rulebook through party conference significantly easier. (Not least because the GMB also accounts for a large chunk of the trade union delegates on the conference floor.) 

So what happened? My understanding is that Milne was not freelancing but acting on clear instruction. Although Team Corbyn are well aware a nuclear deal could ease the path for the wider project, they also know that trying to get Corbyn to strike a pose he doesn’t agree with is a self-defeating task. 

“Jeremy’s biggest strength,” a senior ally of his told me, “is that you absolutely cannot get him to say something he doesn’t believe, and without that, he wouldn’t be leader. But it can make it harder for him to be the leader.”

Corbyn is also of the generation – as are John McDonnell and Diane Abbott – for whom going soft on Trident was symptomatic of Neil Kinnock’s rightward turn. Going easy on this issue was always going be nothing doing. 

There are three big winners in all this. The first, of course, are Corbyn’s internal opponents, who will continue to feel the benefits of the GMB’s support. The second is Iain McNicol, formerly of the GMB. While he enjoys the protection of the GMB, there simply isn’t a majority on the NEC to be found to get rid of him. Corbyn’s inner circle have been increasingly certain they cannot remove McNicol and will insead have to go around him, but this confirms it.

But the third big winner is Lewis. In his praise for NATO – dubbing it a “socialist” organisation, a reference to the fact the Attlee government were its co-creators – and in his rebuffed attempt to park the nuclear issue, he is making himeslf the natural home for those in Labour who agree with Corbyn on the economics but fear that on security issues he is dead on arrival with the electorate.  That position probably accounts for at least 40 per cent of the party membership and around 100 MPs. 

If tomorrow’s Labour party belongs to a figure who has remained in the trenches with Corbyn – which, in my view, is why Emily Thornberry remains worth a bet too – then Clive Lewis has done his chances after 2020 no small amount of good. 

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