What is it about powerful men, sexual assault allegations, and the inability of ostensibly democratic parties to treat such accusations with due weight and carry through proper investigations? I suppose to pose the question that way is to answer it. The Liberal Democrats’ handling of the Lord Rennard enquiry has been a proper shambles, involving cock ups and conspiracies, accusations passed over for the “good of the party”, legalistic burdens of proof, refusals to apologise, bizarre defences of conduct and, latterly, blood-curdling threats. Far be it for me to point you at Dan Hodges two days running, but his piece is the best summation I’ve seen.
You can almost understand why the higher ups covered for this – ironically – untouchable LibDem. He is/was a “genius”. It was Rennard who came up with the LibDems’ turn to so-called pavement politics in the 90s, of appearing to be all things to all people. I also think it was Rennard who came up with the stirring slogans “it’s a two horse race!”, “winning here!”, and the sublime beauty of the LibDem bar chart. Give him his due, Rennard’s strategic nous was very useful for the LibDems. One should not overplay him as a factor in the party’s successes between 1989 and 2009. After all, by that point the respective declines of Toryism and Labourism had sent in. But Rennard took the advantages the circumstances afforded and ran with them. If anyone can take the credit for building the yellow party into the third political force, it’s him.
One cannot help but recall another case where a senior, behind-the-scenes political figure was shielded by party officialdom because of his “indispensability”.
There are lessons here, of course. You don’t need me to tell you of the differences should you compare the SWP and the LibDems. The latter is formally and substantively more democratic than the swuppie apparatus. It also occasionally wins elections, and some people may have heard of it too. And, yes, the gravity of the alleged offences are substantially different.
On top of the unspoken privileges conferred on powerful men of all political persuasions, the way both parties and, if I may be so bold, our political cultures are structured build up essential cadres as weird kinds of superstars. Parties, among other things, are collective endeavours in which individual talents and experiences are pooled to meet certain objectives. Theoretically speaking, if someone has a little black book of useful contacts – trade unionists, business people, influential residents, whatever; that should at least be harnessed for the party’s common good. But very often that doesn’t happen for all kinds of reasons associated with ‘standing’, factional alignments, etc. The reality of party life rewards those who don’t spread political capital thinly but shepherd it like a scare resource, spending it here, investing it there. As one’s star rises so does influence, power and institutional charisma. And so does the capacity to abuse that position. You might be tempted to call this ‘Rennard’s Syndrome’.
The easy and obvious conclusion to draw is that we need to do politics differently. The hardest thing to do is making that a reality.