When the question about sexual harassment was asked of the Question Time panel in Dundee last week, all three men on the panel – including David Dimbleby – went awfully quiet. The two women, Kezia Dugdale and Ruth Davidson, roundly condemned sexual harassment and the behaviour of party leadership that ignores complaints; especially telling coming from Davidson, as the leader of the Scottish Conservatives.
It gets written off as “not a big deal” or “he probably didn’t mean it” or “he’s not a bad guy, really.” Any discussion of the bad behavior must immediately be followed by a complete audit of his better qualities or the sad things he’s suffered in the name of “fairness.” Once the camera has moved in and seen him in closeup as a real, human, suffering person, how can you (the object, always an object, as in “objectified,” as in a disembodied set of tits or orifices, or a Trapper Keeper, or a favorite coffee mug or a pet cat) be so cruel as to want to hold him accountable for his actions? Bitches, man. “My friend group has a case of the Creepy Dude. How do we clear that up?” Captain Awkward, August 2012
For twenty years, Lord Rennard was the man in charge of Liberal Democrat campaigns and elections. He was appointed Director of Campaigns and Elections for the newly-forged Liberal Democrat party in 1989. In 1992, the LibDems lost two seats – by the 1997 election, they had 18. But in 1997, 2001, and 2005, targeting winnable seats, Rennard increased Liberal Democrat representation from 18 to 46, to 52, to a high of 62.
In 1997, Labour of course made a huge gain in gender representation using the strategy of women-only shortlists in winnable constituencies. The Conservatives did not, so it seems fairer to compare them to the LibDems.
- The only woman elected as a Liberal Democrat MP in 1992 was Liz Lynne, MP for Rochdale from then to 1997, when she lost to the Labour candidate. She was then MEP for the West Midlands from 1999 til retirement in 2012. (To avoid confusion, I haven’t counted Emma Nicholson for either party: she was elected a Conservative MP for Devon West and Torridge in 1987, defected to LibDem in 1995, and lost her seat in 1997.)
- In 1997, there were two new LibDem women MPs: Jackie Ballard (Taunton, 1997-2001) and Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park, 1997-2005).
- In 1992, the Conservatives won 336 seats, 18 held by women: Teresa Gorman, Cheryl Gillan, Ann Widdecombe, Ann Winterton, Virginia Bottomley, Marion Roe, Gillian Shephard: Elizabeth Peacock, Jill Knight, Edwina Currie, Angela Knight, Jacqui Lait, Elaine Kellett-Bowman, Peggy Fenner, Angela Rumbold, Janet Fookes, Olga Maitland, Judith Chaplin (who died after less than a year in office, and at the byelection which replaced her, a male LibDem won her seat).
- In 1997, the Conservatives won only 165 seats: seven women held their seats (Teresa Gorman, Marion Roe, Cheryl Gillan, Ann Winterton, Ann Widdecombe, Virginia Bottomley, Gillian Shephard), five Tory women were new MPs in 1997 (Julie Kirkbride, Eleanor Laing, Theresa May, Caroline Spelman, Anne McIntosh)
- In 1992, the Libdems had 18 MPs, only one woman. (5.555%)
- In 1997, the LibDems had 46 MPs, only two women (4.347%). In 2001, they had 52 MPs, only five women (Patsy Calton, Sue Doughty, Annette Brooke, Sandra Gidley, and Jenny Tonge – 9.615%).
- In 1992, the Conservatives had 336 MPs, 18 women (5.357%). In 1997, they had 165 MPs, 12 of them women (7.272%). In 2001, they had 166 MPs, 13 of them women – proportions scarcely changed (7.831%).
Bridget Harris, who complained about Lord Rennard’s harassment to her manager in 2003 when she was working as a political advisor to the Lib Dems at the Welsh Assembly, said:
“Young men and women shouldn’t be expected to put up with opportunistic advances. There’s legislation to protect them, and in most work places it is taken seriously.
“In this instance the Lib Dems have failed. The party focussed on managing the women who were complaining, not the man who was groping them.”
Ms Harris’ complaint dates back to 2003 when she was working as a political advisor to the Lib Dems at the Welsh Assembly. She said Lord Rennard made a series of unwanted advances, touching her leg and inviting her to his room at a conference.
She said: “He was the second most important figure in the Lib Dems. We were in a professional setting but he took advantage of that.”
In 2005, the Liberal Democrats had 62 MPs – but only 7 women (Annette Brooke, Sarah Teather, Lynne Featherstone, Jo Swinson, Jenny Willott, Patsy Calton, Julia Goldsworthy) – 11.29%. In 2005, the Conservatives had 196 MPs – 17 women (8.673%).
The big jump – the point where the Conservatives overtake the LibDems both proportionally and numerically – is in 2010. Conservatives had 210 MPs, 48 of them women (15.73%). LibDems have 57 MPs – 7 of them women (12.28%). Labour still does better than either (out of 258 current MPs, 87 are Labour – 33.72%.) The Liberal Democrat MPs are Annette Brooke, Sarah Teather, Lynne Featherstone, Jo Swinson, Jenny Willott, Lorely Burt, Tessa Munt).
The 2015 election, when the Conservatives are likely to lose about 70 seats, will tell the tale if Tory representation of women will advance or reverse: if there are at least 37 women Tory MPs in the next UK Parliament, the party has at least not reversed. But both Annette Brooke and Sarah Teather have said they will stand down in 2015, and as Democratic Audit has noted, Lorely Burt and Tessa Munt have majorities of less than a thousand, and Jo Swinson is in the unenviable position of a LibDem trying to defend a Scottish constitutency. Labour is likely to target Lynne Featherstone’s and Jenny Wilmot’s constituencies. It is entirely possible, in the predicted LibDem wipeout of at least half their seats, that all the LibDem MPs left in Parliament will be men.
Lord Rennard is widely regarded as a formidable and respected political campaigner. He increased LibDem representation both in general elections and at by-elections (according to Wikipedia, he’s “credited with masterminding 12 parliamentary by-election wins for the party, out of 78 by-elections held between 1988 and 2009”) and as Chief Executive of the LibDems he chaired their general election campaign between 2006 and the summer of 2009. Yet under his 20-year leadership, the proportion of women LibDem MPs to men seems to have stood still – both in by-elections and in general elections. This was not the case for the Tories – nor for the SNP in the Scottish Parliament.
Of the four women (out of 10 known to have complained) who agreed to relinquish their right to privacy in order to make their testimony against Lord Rennard public, at least one was hoping to become a LibDem MP:
Susan Gaszczak, a Bedfordshire councillor between 2005 and 2009, says she was harassed by Rennard in 2007 when she attended an event for future female MPs as a parliamentary candidate in Peterborough.
Gaszczak, who sat with Rennard on the party’s federal policy committee, says that at the event Rennard’s hand started to rub the outside of her leg. She claims that when she moved away he kept getting closer and was brushing parts of her that she “didn’t want to be brushed”.
When she excused herself, she says he followed her and said: “Why don’t we get a couple more drinks sent up to my room, where we can continue this conversation?”
None of the seven are willing to speak up against Lord Rennard. Given the open sympathy expressed for him by such luminaries of the party as David Steel, this is hardly surprising.
From David Steel‘s comments, particularly this, it appears he feels it’s Chris Rennard who deserves the support of the LibDem party, not the women who were harassed and bullied by him.
“The suggestion Lord Rennard might wish to apologise was not one I envisaged as being contentious. I viewed Lord Rennard, from the weight of the evidence submitted, as being someone who would wish to apologise to those whom he had made to feel uncomfortable, even if he had done so inadvertently.” My italics.
I welcomed that, and the party has enough legal brains to draft an acceptable apology which, as Paddy Ashdown pointed out, need not cut across Rennard’s protestations of innocence.
No other interpretation can be put on the bland proposal that the “legal brains” of the party should provide an “acceptable” apology for Lord Rennard to deliver to the women – not justice, not a real acknowledgement by Rennard that he had done wrong, but a legal nicety provided by the party to women whom David Steel seems to feel need “a sense of proportion”.
Alison Smith, once an aspiring LibDem activist, now a politics lecturer at Oxford, said that she and a friend were invited back to Rennard’s house after dinner:
“He just very suddenly got up and plonked himself between us and then he started moving his hands down our backs and places where they had absolutely no business being,” she said.
“I straight away stood up and said, ‘No, that’s not acceptable. I’m going home.’ He said, ‘Oh you can’t go home, you should stay here.’ I said, ‘What do you mean I can’t go home?’ He said, ‘There’s no taxis.’
“I said, ‘Well if there’s no taxis then I’ll walk.’ He said, ‘You can’t walk you don’t know where you are’ … and I got very, very, very cross … he looked surprised, he looked shocked and he opened the door and we got a taxi home.” She complained to then chief whip Paul Burstow.
David Steel says:
Goodwill is there in abundance. The party is crying out for a sense of proportion. The nation and the world are full of much more serious problems to which we should be attending.
But actually, there aren’t. Until April 2015, the LibDems will be voting with the Tories, and it is the Tories who set LibDem policy for the problems of “the nation and the world”. After May 2015, the LibDems will very likely have lost the majority of their Rennard gains: they may have no women MPs at all. Party membership fell by 35% over three years after 2010. They are steadily polling at less than 8% – in the recent Cowdenbeath by-election, the LibDem candidate got less votes than UKIP, and UKIP is not a popular party in Scotland. LibDem fantasies about how they might be Labour’s coalition partner after 2015 aren’t helping.
The LibDems finally suspended Lord Rennard from party membership a week ago – to his great annoyance, evidently, since he then issued two statements in which he declared himself to be the victim of a lynch mob and demanded sympathy, threatening to sue if not reinstated – and reportedly also threatening to reveal twenty years of LibDem sex scandals.
Everyone is worried about hurting creepy dude’s feelings or making it weird for creepy dude. Better yet, everyone is worried about how the other dudes in the friend group will feel if they are called out for enabling creepy dude. Women are worried that if they push the issue, that the entire friend group will side with creepy dude or that they’ll be blamed for causing “drama.” “My friend group has a case of the Creepy Dude. How do we clear that up?” Captain Awkward, August 2012
The LibDems want to do well in 2015. Of course they do. They might keep 30 seats, they might go down to 20. They will likely lose a lot of deposits. They will certainly face some embarrassing statistics in comparison with UKIP. But they have come back from only five MPs in one Parliament: they are doubtless hoping to come back from this.
How many aspiring LibDem activists decided they weren’t interested in trying to become an MP if it meant putting up with gropes from Chris Rennard? How many were put off because they were warned that the gateway to being selected as an MP for a winnable constituency was allowing Rennard to fondle and “flirt”? Promises now that the LibDems will do better in future are easily made.
Grace Dent wrote presciently when the Jimmy Savile scandal first broke:
The interesting thing about how we treated young women in the 1970s and 80s is it’s really a ticking time bomb as these naive young fillies grow into angry broads. There must be men the length and breadth of Britain who observe scandals like Jimmy Savile’s and sleep uneasily remembering past conquests. Because it’s all got so hardline now, hasn’t it?
We’ve all met the kind of man who thinks it a perfectly harmless amusement to handle your body: the creeper who doesn’t think of himself as a rapist (and we don’t know that Rennard ever got any of the women he picked on into his bed: no one says that more happened than groping) because he picks on women who have reason not to make a public fuss.
Creepy dude creeps on with his creepy self. He’s learned that there are no real (i.e. “disapproval & pushback from dudes and dude society”) consequences to his actions. Women feel creeped out and unsafe.Some of them decide to take a firm stand against creeping and not come to parties anymore. They slowly slide out of the friend group. Some of the woman decide to just quietly put up with it, because they’ve learned that no one will really side with them and it’s easier to go along than to lose one’s entire community. The whole group works around this missing stair. “My friend group has a case of the Creepy Dude. How do we clear that up?” Captain Awkward, August 2012
How many women will be standing as LibDem MPs in 2020? Is the party capable of 50/50 hindsight?
See also: Caron M. Lindsay on Men, is your behaviour driving women out of politics?