It’s been another gruelling week to be a Lib Dem. The ongoing slew of allegations around Lord Rennard’s behaviour, and the party’s poor handling of it, makes grim reading. As a card-carrying yellow myself, it’s hard not to feel let down. Our party, which so proudly espouses equality, has clearly failed to get its own house in order.
The reaction to Alistair Webster QC’s findings from Lord Rennard himself sums up the pomposity with which he has approached this whole sorry affair. Despite a report that finds his behaviour “caused distress to a number of women”, he refuses to apologise, showing neither contrition nor manners.
It’s important to remember that Webster did not clear Rennard. He said that the “credible” evidence could not in all likelihood prove the case “beyond reasonable doubt”. The eminent QC also called for an apology. It is depressing that Rennard can’t tap into some simple rules of politeness and comply.
Perhaps I should not be so surprised. In May, responding to the Queen’s Speech in the House of Lords, Rennard spoke of his pride at “the way in which I helped my party to achieve gender balance when we began electing our MEPs by proportional representation”. It was as if he was mocking his accusers from the red benches.
The confusing verdict leaves a legal quagmire, and Rennard must feel an apology would be an admission of guilt. It would actually just be doing the right thing.
Rennard was untouchable, and even has his own brand of campaigning named after him. “Rennardism” describes the hyper-local pavement-pounding he piloted, and that helped secure wins in various elections, and propelled him to God-like status within the party. Chris Rennard could make or break a career, and everybody knew it. No wonder that bright-eyed recruits were so desperate to talk to him.
One of the accusers, Oxford University lecturer Alison Smith, told the Jeremy Vine show that she was “very young, very green, very new” when the alleged incidents took place. Smith claims that, as well as those that were new and isolated from friends and family, Rennard preyed on those who were “so ambitious they wouldn’t complain”.
It seems he is so used to power he clearly has no ability to look in the mirror, summon up an ounce of the courage shown by the women, and say sorry. This is the least they deserve, and it would allow the party that he claims to care about to move on. While Nick Clegg and his cohorts may well have tried everything to move the situation forward, they’ve become obsessed by party rules that have proved totally inadequate.
Mr Clegg has finally said that without an apology Rennard will not be welcomed back into the fold, but his party is still bristling, thanks to previous inaction. Furious members, male and female, are looking at options to take the action that their leaders have failed to take.
The situation, finally, is quite simple. If Lord Rennard does not apologise to the women, he must not have the whip restored.
Charlotte Henry is a writer and Lib Dem activist.