Lord Rennard has exposed the Lib Dem attitude to women

Harman claimed Rennard’s accusers were being ‘hung out to dry’

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Nick Clegg had to talk about it on the Today show. Tim Farron tried to defuse it on evening news programmes. The man himself, Lord Rennard, issued a long statement as his party suspended him and began fresh disciplinary proceedings.

The Liberal Democrats are becoming more and more embattled in an unseemly row about the alleged behaviour of their former chief executive, and it’s hard not to wonder what the hell is going on at the highest level of the party.

Whether outside observers feel sorry for them is another matter. This is the modern world, and most organisations have worked out that they need to have robust procedures in place to deal with allegations of sexual harassment.

Rennard denies that he’s done anything wrong, even though an inquiry concluded last week that he had caused “distress” to several women. The Deputy Prime Minister was clear that the peer had to offer an apology before he could resume his seat, and Rennard’s response led to his losing the party whip.

At one level, the Lib Dems have got into this mess because they judged the Rennard case according to the standard of proof required in a criminal case rather than a disciplinary hearing. Their response to the findings last week looked like a classic fudge, in which senior members of the party seemed to be trying not to offend either side. That was never going to satisfy anyone.

This is not the 1980s, when anyone who complained about sexual harassment at work was likely to be accused of making trouble or not being able to take a joke. These days, it’s usual for such accusations to be investigated quickly, and the party president, Farron, has joined Clegg in admitting it was much too slow to respond to allegations. What’s happening now is a direct consequence of a policy of sitting tight and hoping the whole business would just go away.

But the real reason this affair is so damaging is the public perception that it speaks volumes about the Lib Dems and gender. Labour’s Deputy Leader, Harriet Harman, claimed Rennard’s accusers were being “hung out to dry”, an accusation that has all the more force because senior Labour women don’t have female counterparts on the Lib Dem benches.

The party’s public faces – Clegg, Farron, Vince Cable, Ed Davey, Alistair Carmichael, Danny Alexander, Simon Hughes, Paddy Ashdown – are all male. Clegg’s bigger problem, bigger even than the gasp-making Rennard row, is how to persuade voters that the party isn’t an old-fashioned men’s club which merely pays lip service to equality.

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