Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Changing the Party's disciplinary rules: you may not like what you get

There aren't many of us who read constitutions, even within a political party as full as anoraks as the Liberal Democrats, a point that has given me great entertainment in the past, and the occasional political coup de theatre. I might well be correct in suggesting that not many Party members have been involved in its disciplinary processes. But, having written the framework for dealing with disciplinary matters in the East of England, I ought to offer some thoughts before the bandwagon to rewrite the disciplinary rules rolls too much further.

The rules are, in part, required to protect ordinary members from abuse of power

One of the best ways to remove dissent is to (ab)use the disciplinary powers available, so you want rules that protect the eccentric, the argumentative and the socially awkward within reason. Therefore, you can't have processes that make it too easy to punish people. You have to have the right of appeal, you have to allow the accused to construct and present a defence, because, no matter how unpleasant the nature of the complaint is, he or she has rights that we, as liberals, cry out for elsewhere.

Justice should be efficient, not hasty

Both complainants and accused have the right to see that complaints are dealt with within a reasonable time scale, as is currently the case. Process can be a pain sometimes, but trust me, shortcuts tend to generate much more pain over a lengthier period.

The process should be clearly explained and accessible to most, if not all

There should be some simple rules to start off with. Complaints should be in writing, rather than made as part of a conversation. The rights of both complainant and accused should be clearly stated, preferably in writing. Privacy and confidentiality should be respected, especially that of third parties.

Prejudicing a disciplinary hearing by calling publicly for a particular outcome rather compromises those who have to make any decision

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of a case, having a senior figure call for a particular outcome from a disciplinary hearing tends to create a momentum all of its own. Unfortunately, in a democratic political party, especially one with as many civil libertarians in it, riding roughshod over the sensitivities of those who believe in due process is unlikely to end well.

It has taken twenty-five years for the Party's disciplinary rules to evolve into the form that we see before us, and some pretty clever people have striven to provide the best framework we can have. It won't always make sense, and it may lead to some unexpected consequences.

So, think long and hard about what you might want from revised membership rules, because, if we get this wrong, we may have quite a long time in opposition...

1 comment:

Joe Otten said...

There is a tension isn't there between on the one hand being an efficient goal-seeking organisation, and on the other reflective of the values we advocate.

One would throw out anybody damaging the cause, intentionally or not, on the balance of probability. The other demands natural justice at every turn.

Overall I think our values give us more strength than any amount of efficiency would. But from time to time we get these stories along the lines of why doesn't the leader just end the shambles by shooting all the troublemakers?