by Kevin Meagher
If the glamorous world of political power is an aphrodisiac, the grubby underbelly of politics is probably something like a retching motion. That’s to say, it isn’t pretty, as a cast load of dubious characters are coughed forward into our midst. A few crooks. Quite a few oddballs. Plenty of lechers. Mostly, they are men (although there are a few are women too). They are all part and parcel of our political life.
So nothing about the allegations swirling around Lib Dem peer Lord Rennard is particularly unusual or new and no-one, in any party, should react too smugly as this sorry state of affairs unfurls.
And I say that from the start, allegations. I don’t know what Rennard did or didn’t do. Neither does the police, it seems, who found there was no case to answer after investigating complaints from several women Lib Dem activists about unwanted moves they say he made on them.
Neither, did the party’s internal investigation, conducted by Alistair Webster QC, which has triggered this latest crisis. That’s because while he concurs with the earlier police investigation, Webster concludes, in a frankly brilliant circumlocution, that Rennard should still apologise:
“I viewed Lord Rennard, from the weight of the evidence submitted, as being someone who would wish to apologise to those whom he had made to feel uncomfortable, even if he had done so inadvertently.”
So there was no evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that Rennard did anything wrong, but he might still want to apologise, although the thing that he might have done, that can’t be proven, may in fact have been done “inadvertently”. A report by the Lib Dems that’s all things to all people; now who would have suspected that?
But it’s the very start of this saga that’s in some ways the most intriguing. This issue didn’t suddenly splatter into the public domain. It’s been simmering for literally years. Allegations about Lord Rennard were first put to Nick Clegg’s office privately (but no doubt forcefully) back in 2008. That was the point in this protracted, three-dimensional balls-up where the issue could have been quietly resolved.
If Clegg had acted promptly and decisively and arranged the sort of arbitration now being talked about between Rennard and his complainants, he might have avoided this mess from even entering the public domain at all. It could have been sorted out off-radar, avoiding any entanglements with the Lib Dems’ hair-shirt constitution, which Clegg has blamed for stymieing his efforts to get a grip of this mess.
But Clegg isn’t much interested in party management. Although there are men who cross the line in terms of sexual conduct in all three parties, I suspect they would be sorted out over at the Conservative party in short order – and I know for a fact they would be dealt with by Labour.
The art of political fixing – making problems disappear and generally smoothing the way – is often overlooked amid the high-octane world of the spin doctors and the brain-humming seriousness of policy wonks. But it is nevertheless vital to politics, as the Lib Dems are now finding out to their cost.
Yet we know much less about these characters who quietly – and always discreetly – go around sorting out their political masters’ screw-ups. The humble fixer, like a worker ant, ploughs on, thinking of the greater good. He or she is part of a bigger whole. They don’t court the limelight, nor seek the glory. And their secrets go to the grave with them.
If they had a job description it would say something like ‘results-focused problem-solver used to working in challenging environments.’ They deal in the currency of human frailty. Massaging egos where needed, putting some stick about when necessary, stiffening resolve when they have to. They maintain the internal wiring of our parties. On the success or failure of their efforts, British politics pivots.
Ed Miliband knows the value of political fixing as he prepares the ground for his major reshaping of the relationship between Labour and the trade unions ahead of the special conference on March 1. This means assuaging and/or convincing the trade unions of the merits of his plans, otherwise they could break his leadership. It takes time, patience, a willingness to listen, to discuss, cajole, budge a bit, and even plea, if necessary.
David Cameron’s fixing is of an altogether larger scale, mega-fixing, if you will. He needs to find an accommodation between his party and UKIP that prevents the divided forces of the political right colliding into each other and propelling Labour into Downing Street in 16 months time. If Miliband’s challenge is fraught with difficulty, then Cameron’s task is nigh on impossible, unless the Archangel Gabriel freelances these days.
In comparison, Nick Clegg’s little local difficulty with Lord Rennard seems puny. Which is precisely why this week is such an unmitigated disaster for the Lib Dems. If they can’t fix something like this, then really, what use are they?
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut