Thursday, 28 February 2013

Amateur detection

Now that whatever two penn'orth I throw into the blogosphere can no longer be construed as prejudicial to the Eastleigh by-election, here are a few of my reactions to the allegations aired by Channel 4 News and taken up so avidly by the BBC.

I first learned of allegations against Chris Rennard in early 2009 when they were aired by Guido Fawkes*. In those fevered pre-election times when dirt was being flung on all sides, I mentally placed them in the same trough as rumours of William Hague's homosexuality (which he was eventually forced strenuously to deny). In neither case were any specific names mentioned, which tended to discredit them. With Lord Rennard's elevation the rumours subsided, only to resurface in harder form on Channel 4 this month.

It seems that Nick Clegg was also unaware of the identity of the complainants in 2008. He and Danny Alexander were, however, persuaded that there was substance to the complaints, as Alexander's official statement indicates. In the face of strong denials (which he maintains) by Chris Rennard and the then reluctance of complainants to be publicly identified, it is hard to see what other action the new leader and his chief of staff could have taken at that time, other than to ensure that Chris was no longer in a position where he could be thought to be taking advantage of vulnerable people.

It is surely this reluctance on the part of the women concerned to put their heads above the parapet which  prevented the matter being resolved to their satisfaction five years ago. On the face of it, it also seems surprising. A senior LibDem parliamentarian said after the Channel 4 broadcast that he knew the leader's assistant to be a strong character and would have expected her to respond immediately with a slap on the face if she had been propositioned or fondled. It is remarkable that until this month that Nick was unaware that she had been one of the aggrieved. Another young woman, who I have always thought to be strong beyond her years, has reluctantly made herself known publicly, but only to forestall the now inevitable revelation by journalists.  These women appear to have confided at the time of the incidents only in other women.

We men in the party clearly overestimate the self-confidence of seemingly strong women. The fact that so many of them were prospective parliamentary candidates must also have been a factor, as Alison Smith's contribution last night to BBC's persistent coverage makes clear.

If they had had recourse to the Public Concern At Work charity, whose good offices the Liberal Democrat party is now promoting, it might have been a different story. Setting up both an inquiry into the specific cases and that continuing mechanism for concerns to be raised safely is right. The measures are clearly overdue, but at least it they are being done. One wonders what arrangements other political parties have made.

As to the timing of the 2013 revelations, Channel 4 say that their programme had been in preparation for some time before the by-election was called. One might respond that the possibility of Chris Huhne being  forced to resign his seat had been known for two years. One of the people behind the programme is a Conservative who briefly defected to the Liberal Democrats before returning to the Conservatives. This is not to say that the programme should not have been aired. It was clearly a matter of public concern and the sooner it was shown, the better. However, there is testimony from telephone canvassers on the eve of the poll that former LibDem voters in Eastleigh were wavering. The only new factor was the publicity given to the Rennard accusations.

The affair has brought to the fore the whole subject of casual sexism by men in positions of power, at all levels. I am sure everyone who has been in local government can tell of councillors in the ruling group taking advantage of staff, usually no more than an uninvited pat or a risqué comment, but sometimes more. It is true of Labour councillors down here; I have no doubt it is also true of Conservatives in Blue country. A swift glance at Webfetch reveals such writers as Grace Dent, Cathy Newman and Jane Martinson pronouncing on the subject, remarkably consistently given their different political backgrounds. In their articles, they have admirably moved on from the particular to the general. Is it a forlorn hope that it will stay on the agenda this time?

* I find Paul Staines' references to Lord "Sexperv" somewhat hypocritical given the 77 pages of "totty watch" on his blog. is typical.


Frank Little said...

Women Liberal Democrats have now published their response on the Liberal Democrat Voice website. I am surprised to learn that: "We are also aware that it appears WLD was not seen as a place to turn for people with concerns."

Frank Little said...

Bravo to Jo Swinson for waiting until party conference for explaining her part in the sexual harassment affair. This is from her speech:
When a friend, Alison Smith, told me she had experienced unwanted advances I was shocked and concerned. When it was suggested that this was not an isolated incident I was deeply troubled, and sought advice.

I think it’s fair to say that back then our party processes for dealing with this kind of situation were lacking. So it was a case of trying to deal with it in the best way possible – while recognising that great sensitivity was needed and the important liberal principle that you are innocent until proven guilty.

A number of women confided in me about similar experiences. We shared the objective of preventing other women from experiencing this kind of behaviour – they wanted to make it stop.

The women also had an entirely understandable wish for privacy which I was careful to respect – so of course I didn’t name names when I spoke to people in the leader’s office to express these concerns.

I made sure that further action was taken, and as you know Danny Alexander made clear that any such behaviour was unacceptable and had to stop.

I told the women who had confided in me what I had done, and encouraged them to let me know if they became aware of any subsequent incidents. If there were fresh reports of this kind of behaviour, I would have insisted on further action.

Let me be clear, to this day, I have not heard any account of inappropriate behaviour subsequent to the action Danny and I took.

I repeat what I said in the main post: I don't see what more she and Danny could have done at that stage, given that there was at that time no formal mechanism in the party for dealing with claims of sexual impropriety, and that the women in question wanted to preserve their anonymity. The action was effective, too. It was not as if they had turned a blind eye (like BBC over Savile) or simply moved the person complained of to another position where he could have given rise to concern (the Roman Catholic church's approach until recently).