Rennard scandal proves change of culture is needed

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When the news initially broke last week, my initial reaction was disbelief.

I do not know Chris Rennard personally, although I have met him on two occasions. But I know him by reputation – and what a reputation he had. As Director of Communications from 1989 until 2003, he was widely credited with the by-election victories at Eastbourne, Newbury and Eastleigh – and before that with creating the brand of community politics that worked so effectively not only in his native Liverpool but in council ward and constituencies across the UK.

His legacy, in campaigning terms at least, is hugely significant.  The Liberal Democrats’ successes in the 1990s and early 2000s were due to a combination of factors; however, Rennard’s pivotal role in the emergence of the Lib Dems as a force in British politics is an inescapable statement of fact.  He is to our party what Peter Mandelson was to New Labour. There have been very few other figures who have been so vital to recent political history, yet so anonymous to those outside of either Westminster or their own party.

Rennard was well-liked with few obvious enemies. Those of us who knew him well – and I was speaking to one such Peer yesterday – found him amiable and dynamic, if a bit unconventional.  Others, who knew him only as an innovative campaigner and recognised his contribution to our party’s achievements (and even its identity), held him almost universally in high esteem.  It seems most who knew anything about Chris Rennard were as shocked at the emerging allegations as I am.

The allegations currently in the headlines centre on sexual harassment.  The media circus that has followed the Channel 4 report seems to have lost sight of the reality that, for all involved, this is a tragedy: a human tragedy, with far-reaching consequences.  Not only has this had the effect of diminishing the suffering of the victims (and all such cases have victims, even if we don't yet know who they are) it has also compromised a search for truth - in the case of the Daily Mail at least - with a concerted and deliberate campaign to destroy the political credibility of the party leader and the career of Chris Rennard.

In the eyes of many in the media, those who have made the allegations against Rennard are of little more than peripheral interest.  This displays a flagrant lack of respect for the many victims of similar offences, not to mention the very courage people often need to come forward and speak of their ordeals.  That is not to suggest that all individuals making allegations should be automatically assumed to be entirely truthful, but they should be afforded respect by the media.  Nothing is more disgraceful than the savage media exploitation of those who may already have been savagely exploited.

I have been in conversation on twitter with one of Rennard’s accusers, Alison Smith.  She rejects the label “victim”, or the notion that she is in some way being exploited by the media.  I understand her entirely, especially in relation to the overuse of the word “victim” with its natural connotations, but the fact that someone doesn’t feel exploited does not necessarily mean they are not being exploited.  It is evident that those making most noise about Rennard’s alleged improprieties care little for the well-being of those who may have experienced them.

Aside from the tabloid media, political opportunists within the Conservative Party have cynically sought to use this for short-term political gain, conveniently forgetting about the records of their own parliamentarians. What is essentially a matter surrounding unwanted advances should be focused on the women concerned, but has somehow become about so much more - namely Nick Clegg's leadership and the Eastleigh by-election.  Most of the “outraged” couldn’t tell you who Alison Smith or Bridget Harris are.

As Alison Smith told me, it’s the culture that must change.  Firstly, it’s the culture of the media; a culture obsessed with personality but with little regard for humanity.

But this is not about the media, much as many would like it to be.  Unfortunately all my criticisms that the media’s aggressive attempts to make this about Nick Clegg were undermined by Clegg’s own poor handling of events and his statement yesterday – which seemed to reinforce the point that, yes, this was indeed all about Nick Clegg.

Clegg’s handling of key situations since entering coalition has been poor.  Events have, unfortunately, followed a similar pattern this week, with initial denial of any knowledge of “allegations” followed after intense media pressure with an admission that the leader was, in fact, aware of non-specific rumours.  The distinction is more than an academic one, but Clegg did himself few favours and yesterday’s admission will reinforce public mistrust and perceptions of untruthfulness.  Clegg was at pains to “reject the insidious suggestion that my office or I are responsible in any way for a deliberate cover-up”, but has only succeeded in convincing many that his initial response was less than honest.  He knew about the harassment claims, even if he didn't know very much.

Whatever Nick Clegg knew, given that he was aware of “rumours”, the detail of the allegations cannot have come as a huge surprise. Outright denial of knowledge was therefore plainly foolish, and points to another feature of our political culture that urgently requires change.  The instinct to deny first and concede later shows a certain disregard not only for truth but also the public, and is not befitting of a party claiming to be above dishonesty and spin.  The Liberal Democrats have become the victim of - if not willingness to “cover up” – an economy with the truth in what must have seemed relatively trivial situations.  Imagine what might (not) have happened had Chris Huhne admitted to dishonesty over a speeding ticket?  Or if David Laws had not felt the need to deny his living arrangements?  Or if Nick Clegg had said, on Thursday, “I’ve heard some rumours and didn’t think much of them at the time. Obviously we’ll be taking a serious look at the situation now.”

This is the tip of the iceberg as far as how the party handles situations.  Clegg seems to have the opposite of the Midas touch: everything he puts his hand to crumbles to dust.  This is not coincidental, and in this case is the product of a culture that looks to limit damage rather than seek truth.  A policy of honesty first is always risky, but is certainly preferable to making forced statements correcting earlier forced statements.  Perhaps the instinct towards damage limitation is a demonstration of Clegg’s personal vulnerability and his growing mistrust of the media – he certainly is looking and sounding more and more like a victim himself. Whatever the reasoning, Clegg’s apparent backtracking and the statement itself raise more questions than they do answers: serious questions that demand serious investigation.

The lines of questioning must surely include the role of Jo Swinson who, in 2008,seems to have conducted something of an inquiry in which “women confided in [her]” and was followed by “ try to put a stop to any inappropriate behaviour” .  This would appear to indicate that more than non-specific “rumours” were circulating at the time, and suggests that either Nick Clegg is not being truthful or that MPs leading internal inquiries don’t report to their leaders. Either way, it is hugely concerning.

An inquiry has now been launched and I for one am pleased that there is now an independent element to the process.  I will not make any judgements prior to knowing what the outcome of that inquiry is.  Certainly if suspicions of an intentional and systematic “cover up” are proved correct, I will be unable to remain a member of the Liberal Democrats.  I do not say this lightly but, having campaigned against the abuses and concealments of information within the Roman Catholic Church and having been a victim of abuse myself, I could not with integrity retain my membership card.

That is the worst possible outcome and, in all probability, not the most likely.  What does seem more than probable is that the original handling will be shown to have been haphazard and insufficiently effective, that serious rumours have been too readily dismissed rather than thoroughly investigated, that those who came forward in confidence were let down by those in whom they had confided and that a culture of misogyny continues to permeate Westminster (let’s be honest, this is not merely a problem for the Liberal Democrats).

The best case for changing the political culture has been articulated in the last 24 hours by Lembit Opik, Tony Greaves and Jasper Gerrard.  Opik appeared on Sky News and seized the opportunity to score some easy political points and, while much of what he said made some sense, it was too egotistical and driven by resentment to be effective or helpful.  Tony Greaves, for whom I generally have enormous respect, leaped to the defence of Rennard; certainly his sense of personal loyalty is admirable.  What is less admirable is the barely disguised retrograde attitude towards harassment and women more generally.  Says Greaves: “We don’t know the details of anything that may have happened. But it is hardly an offence for one adult person to make fairly mild sexual advances to another. What matters if whether they are pursued if they are rebuffed…In passing I would note and guess that if the allegations as made are a matter for resignation, perhaps around a half of the male members of the Lords over the age of 50 would probably not be seen again.”  You don’t have to experience abuse personally to recognise the idiocy of those assumptions.  Another Liberal Democrat, Jasper Gerrard, decided to make a name for himself by declaring that the alleged incident was “just something that's unfortunate but is being blown out of all proportion.” Claiming the allegations were of merely “historic” significance, he also asked why “all these allegations are coming out just before the Eastleigh by-election”, as if the by-election was more important than the issues raised by the allegations and the reaction to them.

Gerrard asserts that “we shouldn't be treating it as some kind of major major crisis” (as opposed to a minor major crisis, presumably) but seems oblivious to the fact that it is precisely Clegg’s handling that has created a political crisis, arguably the most severe test of his leadership to date. And what he, Greaves and Opik crucially fail to appreciate is that sexual harassment isn’t about a little bit of innocent touching, whose propriety or otherwise is determined by the response of the recipient, but that it is a fundamental question of how power is used and trust is betrayed. Clearly there remains a culture, even within our own party, that considers this kind of thing fundamentally harmless.  That may not be the prevailing culture, but it is a deeply embedded one nonetheless.

Finally, I will suggest that the Liberal Democrats for so long have been complacent, swallowing the self-fuelled myth that we are morally superior to our Labour and Conservative counterparts.  We have made so much electoral capital (thanks, Chris!) to positioning ourselves as being above not only the low standards set by others but even politics itself, that we believed we were protected from such scandals.  In thinking so, we refused to accept the possibility that Liberal Democrat parliamentarians – our parliamentarians – could behave in such a way.  It never entered our consciousness that three years into coalition we would have lost two of our five cabinet ministers in such ignominious fashion or that esteemed individuals such as Cyril Smith and Chris Rennard could have their reputations sullied by the suggestion of sexual impropriety. Subconsciously we turned a blind eye to abuse, via the self-delusion that such things only affected other parties.

Whether Chris Rennard is guilty I do not know.  Obviously I hope not.  Again, whether my party has acted with incompetence or is even responsible for an unforgivable face-saving cover-up, I cannot say with certainty at this time. In some respects, however, this is academic. What I can say is that a culture needs to be changed, and that we all have a responsibility to pressure for that change.

No longer can we tolerate a media that diminishes the human aspects of abuse, cynical politicians of all parties who shamelessly use others' sufferings to their advantage, a tendency towards deniability, the complacent belief that we as a party are above such things and attitudes that regard sexual harassment with resignation – not only as normal but essentially a simple reality of life.