Among the most attractive things about the Liberal Democrats is that the party means it when it claims to be liberal and democratic. It has never been censorious about people’s private lives, and it has always given its members power over policy and party posts. Unfortunately, in the matter of Chris Rennard, the genius of by-election victories over a quarter of a century, these qualities have also turned out to be weaknesses.
The trouble is that the party’s reluctance to judge personal morality gives the party an old-fashioned blind spot when it comes to sexism and the power relations supporting it. It is no coincidence that it is the Liberal Democrats who have the worst representation of women in Parliament, of the main parties: they refuse to override the liberal principle of open selections to counterbalance the historic disadvantage of women.
In Lord Rennard’s case, this failing is responsible for injustices suffered by identifiable women rather than Lib Dem women in general. For some time, a reluctance to judge Rennard’s conduct led party leaders and managers to hope that the murmurs about his unwanted advances would go away.
They did not go away, however. The women concerned rightly refused to be brushed aside, and Nick Clegg, the year after he became leader, was forced to order an inquiry. But this is where the party’s pride in its internal democracy turned into an excessive respect for procedure, a respect which in this case favours the accused over the accusers.
Last June, Mr Clegg appeared to recognise this problem. He welcomed a report into the party’s “processes and culture” – which was commissioned separately from the inquiry into the Rennard allegations – and accepted that “there weren’t the right processes in place to support the women who’d come forward”. He took responsibility for that failure, although it mostly occurred before he became leader, and said: “That’s why we’ve made a number of big changes in the party in recent years and why we must and will do more.”
Now that the Rennard inquiry, carried out by Alistair Webster QC, has been completed, however, the hollowness of those words has been exposed. The way the inquiry has been handled is extraordinary. Mr Webster wrote in his published conclusion that the complaints against Lord Rennard are “credible” and that the party’s former chief executive had been guilty of “behaviour which violated the personal space and autonomy of the complainants”, although there was insufficient evidence for a criminal prosecution. But Mr Webster’s full report has not been published, or even seen by Mr Clegg, Lord Rennard nor the complainants.
No doubt this is for good reasons of natural justice but it means that a party that became so exercised about secret courts seems to be conducting its own affairs with less than full transparency.
Mr Clegg’s leadership on this question has been feeble. The gist of his statements last week was: I cannot make him say sorry and I have no power to deny him the party whip in the House of Lords. Obviously a party leader should not be a dictator, but he should have been more forceful.
He should say that Lord Rennard’s conduct has been unacceptable, that the party should have nothing more to do with him, and that, if this is not possible under existing party rules, he, Mr Clegg, would seek to change them.