Monday, June 23, 2014

Dear Nick, would you mind awfully keeping out of the disciplinary process?

I note that, according to the media, Nick Clegg is being called upon to expel Mike Hancock from the Party, in just the same way that he was called upon to expel Chris Rennard from the Party not so long ago. And, regardless of the offence, I have the same advice for him and the Leader's Office - stay well out of it, and offer no comment other than to confirm that the matter is in the hands of those whose hands it should be in.

You see, the Leader has no more say in the disciplinary processes of the Party than you or I, a point made abundantly clear by the disciplinary aspects of its membership rules. He (in this instance) can, however, distort or damage the process by merely expressing an opinion, and we can already see how well that has gone. All that has happened is that the media have been allowed to control the agenda, and given their disdain for due process, and frequently expressed dislike of the Liberal Democrats, it can hardly be said that they have justice at heart.

In both of the cases noted above, the Leader's Office have responded by trying to manage the story - badly. All that has been achieved is to inflate the story to being one of leadership, and they don't intend him to come out of it looking good. Instead, had he said, "A complaint has been made against X and, in accordance with the constitution of the Liberal Democrats, a disciplinary process has been initiated. I look forward to the matter being handled in accordance with the Party's rules, and await the result of their deliberations.", the matter could have been properly investigated, a judgement reached and disciplinary action taken as appropriate.

But in a world where the distance to the political horizon can be measured in minutes rather than years, the temptation to treat each situation as a media test to be 'managed' leads too many key people to react rather than respond. And, given the apparent disconnect between the leadership and the voluntary leadership - the very people who manage, amongst other things, the disciplinary processes of the Party - the scope for unhelpful interference is almost unbounded.

You see, the advantage of having published rules and processes is that they deal with most situations, and provide a framework for action where they don't. They won't satisfy everyone - some people only want one outcome and don't always care how they attain it - but they will usually reach a verdict that is in accordance with natural justice and can be justified on the basis of the evidence. Of course, they aren't designed to deal with certain types of cases - issues pertaining to legality, for example - as the full range of investigative powers is not available and nor would we want them to be. But, if my memory serves, that's what the police and Crown Prosecution Service are for.

I have no real optimism that lessons will be learnt from this - there are those who, when push comes to shove, don't really like the idea of internal party democracy, or due process unless it suits. But that doesn't mean that an aging bureaucrat like me can't wish for rather more respect for those who, like me believe that respect for the rule of law is a basic underpinning of liberalism in a democratic society.

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