Lib Dems' handling of sex claims chaotic
LONDON LETTER: The party is struggling with allegations against a former official
The Liberal Democrats pride themselves, perhaps more than any other political party, on their reputation for equality, but no mainstream party has fewer female MPs, fewer female ministers or fewer members drawn from ethnic minorities in Britain.
Today, it is struggling over allegations of improper conduct by one of the party’s once most influential, if little-known, former officials, Lord Chris Rennard, who stood down as the party’s chief executive a year after Nick Clegg took over as leader.
Rennard is accused by five women that he used his position and influence over their political careers – to seek sexual favours – charges that he most strongly denies.
The controversy has shone a light on the conduct of men inside the House of Commons, a febrile atmosphere even if it is now one bereft of the all-night parliamentary sessions and the heavy drinking that often accompanied them in decades past.
For the last week, the Liberal Democrats and Clegg have struggled to put forward a coherent explanation about when they first heard of the allegations or what they did once they had heard of them.
The allegations, first aired by Channel 4’s Cathy Newman, had been known to a few. For several years the women refused entreaties from Newman to go on the record, believing, it seems, that Rennard was no longer an influential figure in the party.
However, last September’s party conference saw him win a place on the party’s key decision-making body, the federal policy committee, and dine at the top table when the party gathered in Brighton.
Friends of Rennard says he stood down in 2009 on medical grounds, insisting that doctors had told him he would be dead by the time of the 2010 general election if he kept up his usual pace of work.
Even though his face is hardly recognisable, the Liverpudlian is regarded as one of the most formidable campaigners of the last two decades – the man who helped to build the party’s reputation in winning byelections.
In particular, he was adept at persuading voters at byelec- tions to drop their traditional loyalties towards the Conservatives and Labour temporarily and vote Lib Dem.
Questions from Channel 4 were submitted to the party last month, while one of the women, Alison Smith, now a lecturer in Oxford, approached people in the party directly, warning that a storm was about to erupt.
Despite the warnings, the party’s handling of the crisis has been chaotic.
She had come forward now, she says, because she daily meets female students in Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford who talked about volunteering with the Liberal Democrats.
“I had a vision . . . of them trapped in a room with an old lord, not able to leave.”
Now some of the women are to go further and talk to the police, while Labour and the Conservatives quietly snigger at the excruciating discomfort being suffered by the Lib Dems, who have often played the role of the self-righ-teous in past controversies.
Inside the Commons, opinions divide, with some muttering that only the Lib Dems could find themselves embroiled in a sex scandal where no one alleges that sex actually took place, while others are bemused that the allegations were not made earlier.
Stories about groping politicians, however, abound. One senior reporter recounted how he had sat at a dinner with a cabinet minister in the 1990s who, unknown to him, spent the evening groping his junior colleague under the table. The woman did not tell of the assault for years.
Other female reporters tell of being asked in the past by politicians to wear a particular type of dress when they went for an interview, while one has memories of an occasion where a peer spent much of the interview crouched under the table looking at her legs.
For the Lib Dems, the lack of women MPs in their ranks is partly blamed.
Labour MP Gisela Stuart argues that the definition of acceptable conduct in Labour altered in 1997 with a mass influx of Labour women MPs – even if they were then called “Blair’s Babes” by the tabloids.
“One MP sort of leaned over me, and I said, ‘You’ve got about five seconds to shift, after which my knee will be in a place which you will remember for a very, very long time’,” she recalls. “After that we had the most perfectly reasonable working relationship.”