There is no major party in the UK more democratic than the Liberal Democrats. Other parties, including Ukip, have dealt swiftly and effectively with members who bring them into disrepute, but it seems nigh impossible for Nick Clegg to take action against any Liberal Democrat, no matter what they do. Under the party rules, disciplinary action requires that there is a case against the offender that is “beyond reasonable doubt”, a standard of proof higher than is required in a civil court action.
In Portsmouth, Liberal Democrat councillors stood by the Lib Dem MP Mike Hancock for months while he denied sexually harassing a vulnerable constituent, until finally he owned up. By then, a woman Lib Dem councillor, Eleanor Scott, had been driven to resign.
This week, the Liberal Democrats have decided not to discipline David Ward, the MP who tweeted that if he lived in Gaza he might fire rockets into Israel. A separate decision has led to the reinstatement of Lord Rennard, the peer against whom there were complaints of sexual harassment from four women. A QC found the women’s stories “broadly credible” but without independent witnesses, and with Lord Rennard maintaining that he had done no more than invade their “personal space”, no action was deemed to be possible. One of the accusers, Susan Gaszczak, resigned from the party last month: it is unlikely she will want to go back.
In the same dreadful week for the Liberal Democrats, the admirable Pauline Pearce, the “Hackney heroine” who faced down rioters in summer 2011, pulled out of the contest to be party president because of its “Neanderthal views on diversity”. Again, unless she can prove her case “beyond reasonable doubt”, nothing is likely to be done.
It is a fine legal principle that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but within a loosely run organisation like the Liberal Democrats what it can do is protect the guilty and drive out the innocent. The Liberal Democrats need a change of rules.