Liberal Democrat members are to confront Nick Clegg over his response to allegations that party activists were sexually harassed by Lord Rennard, its former chief executive.
An emergency motion criticising the leadership’s response to the claims is expected to be tabled at the party’s spring conference in Brighton next weekend. Grassroots members are angry that the allegations were not taken more seriously when they surfaced in 2008, and upset by Mr Clegg’s reaction when the details became public nine days ago.
The move could take some of the shine off the party’s victory in Thursday’s Eastleigh by-election, which will be celebrated at the conference. Leadership sources admit the scandal is likely to be a last-minute addition to the agenda. “We are happy to discuss it; we are not trying to sweep it under the carpet,” one said.
Although Lord Rennard has denied the claims, party officials are braced for more revelations by women members who claim they were victims of inappropriate behaviour. Some are said to have quit as parliamentary candidates because of it.
Some critics kept their powder dry until after the by-election so as not to undermine the party’s prospects. Naomi Smith, co-chair of the Social Liberal Forum, an 1,800-strong group on the party’s left, said that if the allegations were true, a “serious abuse of power” had pervaded the party for several years, despite its commitment to equality.
Ms Smith, a former candidate, said the “general concerns” raised in 2008 should have led to a review of protocol, the introduction of anti-harassment training, and a firm message from Mr Clegg to all staff and volunteers that such behaviour, if uncovered, would lead to immediate dismissal.
“Since news of the allegations broke last week, the response has been poorly managed by Nick Clegg,” she said.
“He has been defensive and failed to quickly get out into the open all of the information about what he knew and when.”
The party’s 57 MPs include only seven women and Ms Smith warned: “If we fail to act properly now – we’re unlikely improve our prospects with female (and male!) voters, let alone attract good female candidates.”
She continued: “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.”
Ms Smith added: “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 [as Mr Clegg said this week]. It is time to set an example to other organisations, to condemn sexism in society, and to allow a full, open and independent investigation into the events surrounding Lord Rennard.”