My major diversion away from archaeology and into politics not only lasted longer than I expected (2002-2015) but ended very differently than I expected, with a media gaze upon me because of my resignation from a job that I valued immensely. This narrative blog has been a fair while in the making, given that I resigned on the 25th January 2014 from the Liberal Democrat Group and Cabinet in Portsmouth over the Mike Hancock saga, but sometimes it takes a while to build up to catharsis, for all sorts of reasons.
There's a lot of material online about the convoluted life story thus far of Hancock. I don't want to write just another account of events that have already been well documented. And so, this is personal. This blog is about a lot of the things that happened from my personal perspective, as they affected me and challenged my personal beliefs; and I'm writing it as a series of 'episodes'. In this way, it's different from other accounts.
When I was first elected to Portsmouth City Council in 2002, I didn't really go back a long way at all with Hancock. I'd only known him about a year or so as my MP - he'd done some casework for me - and I was asked to stand in Fratton (where I lived) when the then Lib Dem Fratton councillor Peter Hawkesworth was jailed. Hancock didn't phone me, though; Phil Shaddock did. I'd always liked politics; I'd been involved in university politics for years; I was hacked off with the whole Labour-Blair-Iraq situation; and I said yes.
Hancock and Shaddock were my ward colleagues for Fratton for many years. Hancock was also MP for Portsmouth South, and for most of my time on the Council he was its Executive Member (Cabinet Member) for Planning, Regeneration and Economic Development. His wife Jacqui Hancock also served on the Council for much of that time. The Lib Dem Council Leader for most of the time I'll be writing about was Gerald Vernon-Jackson, a charismatic and enigmatic man, close enough to [Lord] Chris Rennard and Vince Cable for them to come down from London to Portsmouth for his 50th birthday celebration. I was close enough to him once to have also been invited.
But I never really knew the Hancocks. I was never invited to their house, never invited to any social gathering that they hosted, and was not invited to things like 'Mike's Buying Breakfast!' occasions on election day mornings despite having been delivering leaflets since 6am like everyone else. I think they made it pretty obvious from Day 1 that they didn't really like me. If not Day 1, then Day 2. I never found out why. I worked hard, I did my best, I took tough decisions, I cared about getting the right results for the most vulnerable people, and I also cared about loyalty to the Lib Dem Group to which I belonged, and I thought I spoke well in the council chamber - but still the Hancocks just didn't like me. It was puzzling and, at first, hurtful. God knows what was going on. I'm the first to admit I've got feet of clay, but they seemed to keep me at arm's-length over-assiduously. Mike Hancock regularly called me by the wrong name for the best part of 13 years - 'Helena' - even though he must have heard my name being spoken by others and read it on council documents hundreds of times. He phoned me once, that I can recall.
As fate and events would have it, I briefly outlasted them all. Phil Shaddock was disqualified from the Council in 2007 and replaced in a bye-election win for the Lib Dems by David Fuller; and by 2015 when I stood down from the Council altogether, I was the only one of the original Fratton trio of 2002 left in office, both Mike and Jacqui Hancock losing their seats in 2014. (I'll be writing separately about Mike Hancock's election campaign of 2014 as an 'Independent candidate'.)
And so years pass. Life goes on. Yet I still find the whole Hancock thing pretty sickening, which is why I've decided that I'll be writing and posting pieces of the story, from my perspective, as and when I feel able to do the narrative justice. In the end the posts will coalesce into a final 'book' of the events of 2014 and the years around that decisive date.
I'll also be making clear the timeline of when I first raised my concerns with the Lib Dem hierarchy, including travelling up to Lib Dem HQ in London for the first time, at my own expense, on 21st June 2013. My resignation of the 25th January 2014 certainly did not come 'out of the blue' for the Liberal Democrats, and nor was it 'hysterical', as some have claimed.
I wrote that resignation on the Saturday morning after the Lib Dem Group voted to keep Hancock in the Lib Dem Council Cabinet, despite the online publication of the damning report on Hancock by Nigel Pascoe QC. The all-too-recent Katia Zatuliveter debacle - the 'Russian honey trap' - may well have been just about packageable as 'a private matter'; but the stuff in the Pascoe report was to me jumping out as off-the-scale wrong. Why it did not have same effect on any other member of the Portsmouth Lib Dem Group, I will always wonder.
I missed that Lib Dem Group meeting because I was recovering from surgery - but the outcome should never have hinged on one bloody vote. I was alerted by text on that Friday night to the result of the vote and subsequent discussion - maintaining the status quo ffs - and also to the irregularities which made the vote incompatible with the Lib Dems' own rules, despite there being officials from the local Party present throughout. I then saw the statement produced by the Group for the media and I knew that, for me, enough was enough. I think it's one seriously fucked up culture that lets things like that happen. I slept on it, but in the morning light I knew I couldn't drink of the Kool-Aid and so I wrote my resignation note and hit the 'send' button.
I found support from many places after my resignation - including a few extraordinary Lib Dem women from outside of Portsmouth who were still very concerned about the whole Rennard debacle and knew that the Party had a problem with women - but I was certainly let down by far too many Lib Dems from the top to the bottom of the Party. This is a big story about how politics works and about how those who enable the doing of wrong are taking the piss out the democracy they claim to uphold. It's a story about how some people - men and women - sometimes know that a colleague has done something very wrong but don't particularly think that the colleague's actions or the victim's feelings matter particularly much in the greater scheme of political long knives. They don't seem to understand that The Thick Of It is satire, not an instructional video.
There are some big figures in the many tales of how I feel I was thrown under the bus by the Liberal Democrats for doing the right thing, including Nick Clegg and Tim Farron, as well as other senior Party members, and I'll be publishing letters and documents and exploring the Lib Dem clubbishness and general political culture around this.
There were times when it became a bit faux imperial down in Portsmouth, and I'd find myself sitting listening to a senior Lib Dem (or two) and would experience a gnawing feeling that these were the voiced delusions of Nero or the ravings of Caligula, minus the togas. For their troops, their people, their followers, cognitive dissonance, group-think and plain fear underpinned the collective delusion that everything was OK.
But it was, and is, a long way from OK. The main story is far from over. The cruel effects of what happened in the years leading up to 2014 and what happened in 2014 itself produced victims - most poignantly the victim to whom Hancock finally apologised on the 18th June 2014 - and created amounts of hurt that can never be fully erased.
Whatever I post will be backed up by evidence - written records such as letters, emails and text messages, for example. In fact, my style as an archaeologist is very much to 'write around' a particular piece of evidence. I'm also grateful to the Lib Dems who have - now that some dust has settled - spoken to me recently of their misgivings about how I was treated, and who have highlighted to me a significant number factual inaccuracies and confidentiality breaches that were bandied about in 2014 by senior Lib Dems in attempts to discredit my narrative.
For example, much has been made, I am told, about the fact that when I met with [the now Baroness] Kath Pinnock as part of her supposed 'review' into the Portsmouth Lib Dem Group 'on the basis of the matters [I had] raised', I met her in a pub. (One might think of this as the Lib Dems playing the 'piss-head gambit', often closely followed by the 'fantasist manoeuvre'.) Actually, I asked to meet her in the Guildhall restaurant, and it was she who wanted to meet in Wetherspoons, and it was she who said she was familiar with it.
As it turns out, she didn't arrive till 11.20am, and it wasn't quiet, and we weren't secluded. And what should have been a perfectly mundane exchange of emails about where we felt would be convenient for us to meet actually takes on an undue importance, precisely because many Lib Dems used the fact of my meeting a senior Party member in a pub as ammunition against me. How did they even know where we met? Some of them seem to have gleaned a surprising amount about this 'confidential' meeting, factoids that are just about accurate enough to suggest some knowledge, but twisted enough to suggest a fair bit of spin-doctoring has been going on. With this episode, as with so many others, there's another side to the story.
I will occasionally post what I suppose is best termed 'peripheral material', too, that is relevant not only to how people view politics and politicians today, but also to why it's so hard for people to trust political culture. I resigned from a role that I loved and valued on a point of principle. The political culture that I walked away from was staged and fake; and the actors who remain on the stage hoping to win plaudits and ovations still have a lot of questions to answer, I feel, about their morality and ethics. They'll hide behind process but I may hopefully shine a little light around the edges.
Of course it's not just the Lib Dems who do this shit - but they did it to me very, very personally and for that, I think that there might need to be a reckoning.