Saturday, December 15, 2007

Simon Hughes Rules..........OK?

The debate that has been raging about whether or not Simon Hughes as President should keep shtum on matters of leadership it seems to me raises some wider questions for us as a party of liberals. What are rules for, and should "unwritten rules" carry any weight?

Don't get me wrong, I am not against rules in principle, I am only against patently stupid rules and I am particularly against the attempted enforcement of those unwritten rules which are often the product of personal opinion and belief and not necessarily universally supported. All too often we make the assumption that because we believe such and such a thing everyone else ought to as well. This is particularly pertinent in the political and religious spheres. And we all do it, I do it, I will challenge those who think Simon was wrong by saying "but I thought we were all liberals?" but for others they have interpreted their liberalness differently.

It reminded me of an incident that happened with a young woman I was working with some years ago. She had been with me about 3 months and then went to work in the holy of holies (Chief Exec's dept) at County Hall. She had only been there a couple of hours when she called me in tears. "How come I can work with you for all those months and get on so well and I have come over here and been made to feel like shit". She had been told she was not obeying the "dress code". This was a very vulnerable young woman, had left home and school at 13, homeless, living on the pittance of £40 a week that the government gave her for being on a training scheme. She had worn her best trousers, her only footwear (trainers) a long sleeved top which slightly showed her (horror of horrors) pierced belly button! I called the person concerned who I knew from my time as Branch Secretary. I asked what the problem was and she told me the young woman wasn't obeying the dress code. "Oh" says I, "can I have a copy of this dress code" (of course knowing there was no such thing). " isn't written down". "Exactly", says I, "it isn't written down, it has never been adopted as a policy or negotiated with the unions, therefore it doesn't exist". The woman in the holy of holies was trying to impose her values and idea of what constituted appropriate dress on this young woman.

Within the party we had the situation of an actual rule - namely that candidates in the Euros could not be endorsed by a "known" Lib Dem (hmmmm, at what point do you become "known" that would be an interesting one to interpret if it ever got challenged). Now I don't agree with that rule, but I was prepared to abide by it. However, when that rule was interpreted to say as a Euro candidate you could not endorse a leadership candidate that seemed to me patent nonsense and an abuse of power. When I asked to appeal against this interpretation I was told I could but that this would hold up the whole election process - being susceptible to the odd bit of emotional blackmail I didn't appeal, but made it clear I intended to support a candidate and that if that meant being disqualified so be it. As it happened no action was taken against me (which rather undermines the ruling), perhaps because I was the only woman on the list, perhaps because I would have made a fuss, who knows. It is a shame I was the only one to do it as it would have been interesting to see what would have happened had there been a mass disobedience!

It beggars belief that as a party we will nearly all get behind our leader in defying stupid rules/laws like ID cards, but that we don't subject our own party rules and unwritten rules to the same scrutiny.

So, this unwritten rule about party presidents. Where does it come from? I would suggest that it comes from members' own value bases. I am not challenging that, so Ros Scott wouldn't do it, that's fine, that is her choice, she is obeying her own value base, interpreting the role as she sees fit and is entitled to do so. But that doesn't give Ros, or anyone else, the right to impose their personal values on someone else.

A friend of mine in the Youth Service summed it up for me, "We should be tight on values and then we can be loose on everything else, all too often we are loose on values and then try to be tight on everything else." And therein lies the rub. Let's be really clear about the values that we share, our "rules" should then proceed from them, rather than being plucked out of the air with no clear idea where on earth they come from.


Anonymous said...

This sort of thing goes on in every aspect of life. My mother and father had a British Gas man around to service their fire and boiler. He told them they needed work doing as their fire currently broke the law. Luckily I was there and asked what law? He then said it wasn't so much a law more of a British Gas recommendation.


Jo A said...

I don't see why restricting comments about a leadership contest is linked to your example here...

I worked in Cowley Street in the last leadership election and thought it was a very good idea to resrict us politically - I felt it protected us from the candidates and their teams as well as vice versa. You cannot do your job well if you are being accused of favouritism every time you send an email or phone someone in the normal course of duty.

Everybody always thinks council officers are politically restricted in a similar way, but only a handful are in a council.

I am not politically restricted and therefore can comment freely. But then I have a job where it would be extremely obvious if I was being politically biased.

In Simon's case it wouldn't be so obvious as he has a more complicated post than me in life - hence the rules to establish where we all sit with each other...

Edis said...

I think it is more than a matter of choice of values...

The situation of the Party President is different to the situation of a candiate for an Euro nomination (for example)

The specific role of the President is to guard the integrity of the Party Consitution ensuring it is applied without partiality to all the activites of the Party. This is especially important in an election for Party Leader where the President is the ultimate guarantor for the integrity of the process. It is important that this not be compromised by the President making partisan statements. I am afraid Simon showed very poor judgement here.

Linda Jack said...


I understand how for Cowley Street staff it may be different. I am fundementally against politically restricted posts - far better to know where a person stands politically than them not say and still be influencing what happens politically. If everyone knows I am a Lib Dem for example they can judge whether or if I am abusing my position. If they don't know I can do it surrepticiously. I have always taken the view that it is far better to be absolutely clear where you stand. For me it was a matter of honour to ensure that my own political views did not bias my decision making, this being particularly important when I had responsibility for members of the Youth Parliament. They were of all political persuasions and none and you would not find one of them who did not feel totally supported and encouraged by me, even if it meant they were out delivering for a rival party! In the same way even if I was in Chris Huhne's shoes I would far rather Simon was honest and open about his views - at least everyone knows where they stand. But as I made the point, this is about the values that drive me, that I freely accept are not shared by everyone.

Jo A said...

Fair point - but essentially what is the point in spending thousands of pounds running a leadership election if a certain candidate happens to be lucky enough to have attracted a lot of influential officers from the party who are not politically restricted and can say what they want...this, surely you will agree, is bound to harm the other candidate/s?

And what that happens, it not only looks terrible from the outside in but also places the less well connected candidate in a very unfair starting point - a bit like being attacked by journos and not having fair coverage of all parties in a general election.

Also the less well connected candidate who is suffering comments from all these official people in Cowley St who carry a great deal of authority over your average member may as well give up if people like Chris Rennard, Simon Hughes and the senior press officer all come out over the airwaves and say how they are supporting the better connected candidate.

Again, it's the success by association psychology thing - the more successful officers who support a candidate the more successful the candidate will look.

It's hideously unfair to begin with...why make it so much more so that we may as well not run an election for our leader?!!

Anyone who has donated to the party in some form must surely care that there are rules in place so that thousands of pounds are not wasted on an unfair election?


Linda Jack said...

I guess this comes back to the no endorsement rule. To be honest, in the European elections the evidence is that despite having that rule the incumbent still has a vast advantage over everyone else because they are already "well connected". Within the leadership election which we are talking about now, the candidates HAVE to have declared support from parliamentarians. So, the argument boils down to, are some parliamentarians more influential than others and should therefore be forbidden from supporting any candidate? I think the influence isn't necessarily to do with position but more to do with the person and what they stand for. So, if I hadn't already come out in support of Nick, I would have been influenced by the likes of Steve Webb and Simon Hughes in making my decision and that had nothing to do with Simon being president. The logical conclusion of your argument is that noone should be allowed to endorse a candidate! My problem is as I said, I accept the need for rules but I do like them to have some basis of logic to them - this is probably why I didn't last too long in the army!


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