By SLF Co-Chair Naomi Smith
If the allegations against Lord Rennard are found to be true, it could mean that a serious abuse of power pervaded our Party for many years. Other parties may yet have similar accusations made against them in time, but Liberal Democrats are supposed to stand up for the vulnerable, protect minority rights and champion equality
Understanding the corrupting force of power is to start to understand the very essence of liberalism. Indeed, the Party’s Federal Executive only narrowly approved the concentration of power of the CEO role to which Lord Rennard was appointed in 2003.
The inquiry into Lord Rennard’s conduct is not so much an investigation about sexual advances as it is about the abuse of power – the very thing any good liberal despises. Those who have criticised the alleged victims should understand that these women had precious little power compared with those they are alleging harassed them and compared to those with whom they voiced their concerns and in one case at least, made a formal complaint.
Yesterday it emerged that Lord Stoneham, who was Director of Operations at Lib Dem HQ, – and therefore head of HR – during the period that some of the alleged offences took place, called one of the female victims after the news story broke, not to express concern or offer her support, but to criticise her for her actions and ‘angrily remonstrated’ her down the telephone.
Disappointingly, Shirley Williams, perhaps the most powerful and certainly most revered female in the Liberal Democrat party, has yesterday described the alleged molestations of women by Lord Rennard, as ‘exaggerated’. It’s not clear how she could know this.
What we do now know is that Danny Alexander, Paul Burstow, Nick Clegg, Norman Lamb, Jo Swinson, and Sandra Gidley have admitted to knowing something of these allegations before the Channel 4 News story broke last Thursday. Those names amount to more than 10% of the 2005-2010 parliamentary party. And while detailed complaints were made to Nick Clegg’s Chief of Staff Jonny Oates, former Party President Ros Scott, and former Chief Whip Paul Burstow, Nick Clegg claims to have known only ‘general concerns’ about Lord Rennard’s conduct. In the absence of specific and direct concerns, ‘general concerns’ ought to have been sufficient to have triggered a review of HR protocol, to put anti-harassment training in place and to send a firm message from the leader to all staff and volunteers that such behaviour, if uncovered, would lead to immediate dismissal.
However, none of those things were implemented, and since news of the allegations broke last week, the response has been poorly managed by Nick Clegg. He has been defensive and failed to quickly get out into the open all of the information about what he knew and when. Members look to him for leadership, and he is deemed as being ultimately responsible for the party he leads.
Now is not the time for senior Lib Dems to dismiss the seriousness of harassment, nor to condemn these women for bravely speaking up, nor to criticise journalists for being self-appointed detectives. It is time to set an example to other organisations, to condemn sexism in society, and to allow a full, open and independent investigation in to the events surrounding Lord Rennard. Our Party has long been embarrassed about its paucity of female MPs – if we fail to act properly now – we’re unlikely improve our prospects with female (and male!) voters, let alone attract good female candidates.
Naomi Smith is Co-Chair of the Social Liberal Forum, and former parliamentary candidate.