May 152011

Since Anna Raccoon’s initial shot across the bows of the LPUK a month ago, I have been following with interest the on-going responses—the publicly available ones, I should add. I am not a party member, nor have I ever been, so I am merely an interested observer, albeit one who has met many of the people involved in the party, including those who are part of this dispute.

A number of things stand out from this internecine dispute that have clearly made it difficult for some people to continue supporting the LPUK. Anna’s first post produced a fair few disappointed responses; these individuals were urged by the party leadership to reserve judgment until an investigation of Anna’s allegations was carried out.

That investigation has now taken place, and the chairman of the party has produced a report.

Anna made two significant accusations in her narrative:

(a) A loan made to LPUK at the request of Andrew Withers during his term as Treasurer was neither properly recorded nor paid back on time.

(b) Andrew Withers was able to make contact with the lender by asking Anna to identify the person from a list of LPUK members sharing the same name.

The first accusation casts doubt upon Andrew Withers’ management of the party’s finances; the second casts doubt on Andrew Withers’ commitment to privacy and data protection.

The chairman’s report, in Section 8, confirms that a loan was made to the LPUK, that the loan was not paid back on time, nor has the full balance yet been paid back, and that the loan ‘has not been recorded as well as it might.’

Furthermore, the report makes clear in Section 7 that the party’s accounts ‘are only now in the final stage of being handed over to the new Treasurer, four months after he should have taken up his duties’ and that ‘the Party’s financial control is not all it should be.’

Section 8 of the report also appears to confirm that Andrew Withers did share a part of the membership list with Anna.

The report concludes that, despite the confirmation of these accusations as valid, Andrew Withers did not act unlawfully. However, it does recommend that the party’s NCC consider the following actions, amongst others:

(1) To determine whether Andrew Withers did contravene privacy and data protection rules, and if so, decide upon what action to take.

(2) To determine what, if any, action should be taken to verify the integrity of the party’s accounts from previous years.

(3) To implement clear guidelines for the management of the party’s finances.

Further to this, the minutes of a meeting of the NCC on 8 May 2011 have been published. Andrew Withers was a participant in this meeting as stated in the minutes. Among other matters, the three recommendations above were discussed and the following decisions were reached:

(1) Andrew Withers did not contravene privacy or data protection rules.

(2) No action will be taken to verify the integrity of the party’s accounts in the immediate future.

(3) New guidelines for management of the party’s finances will be drawn up by, in part, Andrew Withers.

I confess that I am unable to understand the position of the NCC on these points, nor am I able to understand a number of other issues, which I will list below.

First, it is unclear from the chairman’s report exactly who was involved in the investigation of Anna Raccoon’s claims. The LPUK has a judicial committee whose purpose is to investigate and report on such matters, especially when the allegations of misconduct are levelled at a member of the NCC. Although I have looked around the LPUK website, I have not been able to find a list of the party’s officials or judicial committee. Perhaps the list is indeed there, but there is no sitemap, so I am unable to confirm this. In any event, the only name appearing on the chairman’s report is that of the chairman himself.

Second, it is unclear from the chairman’s report whether those investigating this matter ever had access to the full record of the party’s financial transactions. Whether they did or didn’t, the report’s admission that ‘the Party’s financial control is not all it should be’ and financial activity ‘has not been recorded as well as it might’ suggest that some audit or review, undertaken by someone not involved in this investigation, is advisable. That the NCC concluded this was ‘neither essential nor indeed possible’ therefore seems misguided, especially when other members have volunteered to undertake such an audit at their own expense.

Third, while there is nothing to suggest he was involved in the investigation of his alleged misconduct, Andrew Withers was obviously involved in the NCC’s deliberations over what action to take in light of the report’s findings. He was involved in the discussion about whether his own behaviour constituted a breach of privacy and data protection rules. He was involved in the discussion about whether his own management of the party’s finances should be independently audited. And he was one of the individuals deputed to prepare new financial guidelines for the party, despite it being his own activities as Treasurer that highlighted the need for such guidelines in the first place.

Regardless of whether or not he acted improperly, Andrew Withers’ participation in these matters seems highly inappropriate. Whatever his official standing within the party, and I am given to understand that despite temporarily standing aside from the role of Leader, he is still a member of the NCC, he could have recused himself as having a conflict of interest, and should have done so. Failing that, he should have been asked to do so by the other members of the NCC. Nothing in the minutes indicates that he was so asked. Furthermore, with the resignation of the new Treasurer, this office has now reverted to Andrew Withers in his capacity as Leader, putting the party’s financial records and activities back under his control.

It also appears that, despite the initial expectations of the party leadership, these two publications have not restored confidence among the party membership. To the contrary, at least two of the individuals involved in the investigation and subsequent NCC meeting have resigned their official positions within the party. Further concerns have been raised about the possible involvement of non-NCC members in NCC deliberations. Long-time members have published their intentions not to renew their membership. Further accusations have been levelled, and Anna Raccoon has claimed that ‘nobody except Andrew has yet set eyes on a full set of accounts.’

The chairman himself has stated that a ‘faction’ in control of the LPUK website blocked the publication of his report for some unspecified duration of time, and expressed that ‘the allegations about Andrew’s conduct as Party Leader cannot be substantiated.’ A Special General Meeting is being arranged. Insults have been exchanged and threats to contact the Electoral Commission have been levelled.

If Anna Raccoon is correct, and no one other than Andrew Withers has had full access to the party accounts, then the chairman’s investigation of her claims cannot have been either comprehensive or objective. The apparent inability of the NCC to determine whether the financial records are in order casts doubt upon their ability to discharge their legal duties, and brings into danger all of those individuals who have held legal responsibility for the party during the period when misconduct is alleged to have taken place. The admission that the party has not adequately controlled its finances raises more questions than it answers.

I hope, for the sake of all those who have contributed to the LPUK, and for the sake of those who wish to reassure themselves of libertarians’ commitment to transparency, honesty, and financial probity, a new judicial committee of uninvolved party members is elected at the SGM and undertakes a full inspection of the party’s financial matters and rules pertaining to privacy and data protection. I sincerely hope it finds that all is well.

As an interested observer, I really don’t have any right to comment on these things—but all of this information has been deliberately placed in the public domain, and as a libertarian I find that the LPUK and what it does reflects on me whether I’m a member or not. This has happened before, and I have stated my position, which still stands:

I do not hold the idea of a Libertarian Party in the UK in quite the same hopeful regard as John Demetriou. I support them in the ways that I can, I believe in them so far, I hope they win electoral success by the bucketload, and I would vote for them if I could. But if the LPUK fails, or splits into factions, or becomes associated with fringe nutjobs, I don’t believe it will necessarily set back the cause of libertarianism. For failure, factionalism, and fringe movements are exactly what has happened to the Libertarian Party in the US, and yet libertarianism as a politico-philosophical position is more popular and more successful there now than it has been in my lifetime.

In short, I want the LPUK to enjoy tremendous electoral success while maintaining their ideological integrity. But if they don’t, well… no biggie. Libertarianism abides.

I urge those who are disheartened by this affair not to become too discouraged, and not to abandon the cause of libertarianism in Britain because of it.