Sex, lies and Liberal Democrats: What I knew about what happened

8:50 am - February 25th 2013

by Ellie Cumbo    

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For 11 months from September 2006, I was the day-to-day organiser of the Lib Dem Campaign for Gender Balance, the party’s internal initiative to mentor, train and network female would-be candidates for Parliament.

Though managed by Jo Swinson MP, I was actually based in the party headquarters, my desk sandwiched between those of the Candidates and Campaigns teams, on the floor above the office of the then Chief Executive, Chris Rennard.

In my own life, these were important months. Galvanised into membership as a student by the heat of my opposition to the Iraq war and plans for 92-days detention, it was only when working right next to them that I saw how much else was missing that I also cared about- like class, redistribution and solidarity. Oh, and actually taking women’s under-representation seriously enough to do something about it that might work.

And it was also during this time that inappropriate sexual touching by Chris Rennard of Alison Smith was alleged to have taken place. I don’t now remember where I first heard about it, but I do remember the phone call when Jo told me she had spoken to Alison herself, and that the information had been passed to Paul Burstow, the Chief Whip. And I know that key members of staff at Lib Dem HQ were also aware of all this.

Naïve as it now sounds, I believed it was being dealt with, and that what I had to do was make sure Alison knew she would still get the campaign’s help if she chose to look for another seat. I left shortly afterwards, to become a law student and a Labour activist – things I now struggle to remember a life without.

Almost six years later, I was emailed by a researcher from Firecrest Films, who said she wanted to talk to me about “a possible short film looking at gender balance in political parties”. I could not have been more thrilled: the level of women’s representation in our Parliament is both embarrassing and damaging to sound policy, and cannot be fixed alone.

I wanted to talk about liberal ideology and its innate misunderstanding of positive discrimination, and the more prosaic issue of complacent local party officers who pay zero attention to the diversity of their membership until longlisting day. And yes- I wanted to talk about the questionable attitudes that some male politicians – in all parties- have towards young women.

But, of course, this wasn’t actually the purpose of the meeting at all. As I wittered on about shortlisting quotas and the great I Am Not a Token Woman scandal of ’01, it was impossible to miss the recurring theme of her questions. Those training events that in my view focused on the wrong aspects of what it takes to be a candidate- did, erm, did Chris Rennard usually come along? And did he stay over? Not even my hilarious Lembit Opik anecdote could throw her off.

So I adjusted my expectations, and told her what I knew. And having learned that, as far as we can tell, nothing was done about the allegations, I am wholly supportive of the Channel 4 investigation and the mounting pressure on the party leadership to explain who decided what.

What worries me now is that, as the coverage ramps up and up, and becomes increasingly politicised, we risk taking our eye off the wider issue of culture in all our political parties. Sexual harassment is hard to report anywhere- but it’s borderline impossible in a world where success means avoiding embarrassment at all costs, where new recruits can expect to be tested on their loyalty at least as much as their talent, and where employment rights don’t exist, because candidates are not employees.

There are answers to be developed here – from a cross-party protocol for handling allegations of candidate mistreatment, to opening up the remit of the existing Parliamentary regulators – but this won’t happen if scrutiny gives way to scandal. The commentators- from both politics and the media- must not look solely what was done, but about what will be done differently in future. And, in case any researchers want to hear my Lembit Opik story – I still think that short film on gender balance is a good idea.

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About the author
Ellie Cumbo is an occasional contributor, a policy campaigner, feminist activist and Labour party member. She tweets from here.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Equality ,Feminism ,Libdems ,Westminster

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Reader comments

1. Steve Johnson

What all this tends to show, as usual, is that the main political class has no morals, do not understans Truth and would not be who you would choose even as dog sitters. The Libs lie and prevarocate. the Cons, laughably using Mensch tweets use it to gain votes from their “Partners” and Labour do their usual slightly dodgy bandwagon jump on. What a pity we cannot come up with an honest way to run our country rather than deceipt,lies,greed and power chasing.Rennard resigned after expenses allegations fo “health” reasons not any pressure over allegations that it appears all the Lib Dem hierarchy knew about. He did not leave. He was still used as a heavy by the Lib Dems right up to this last week.

@1 – “…the main political class has no morals, do not understans Truth and would not be who you would choose even as dog sitters.” – I believe this is what’s known as a sweeping statement. This kind of blase generalisation actually harms discussion of important issues like this one.

@2 Mike Cobley

My thoughts exactly. Its an attitude fostered by newspapers owned by millionaires who have nothing but our best interests in mind.

So no women did anything about women being sexually abused. The author, Jo Swinson, Angela herself? Well, hurray – yeah, let’s get more women in parliament, they’ll make a whole load of difference!!

This kind of blase generalisation actually harms discussion of important issues like this one.

Not all sweeping generalisations are incorrect – and it’s pragmatically self-refuting to claim otherwise.

I think all these scandals in various areas of society demonstrate that ALL people have the potential to do negative things. The question is whether we have systems that expose these things and hold people to account, including those who create and perpetuate the corrupt systems that enable these things to continue unperturbed.

Same old garbage. For the most part wouldn`t trust any of them with clearing up after my dog. In my younger nieve days I was a passionate follower of politics and felt they were in it for the good of the country but as the years passed I now believe they`re all kippers….two faced and gutless.

So, power hungry alpha males touch up and try to have sex with female underlings? Big f******g deal.

I have propositioned tens of women in my life, mostly unsuccessfully I might add. If I was more wealthy and powerful I probably would have been more successfull, which says more about what gets women off than about me.

As I understand, this man has propositioned, but not forced or raped anyone? Only caught the outline but as far as I can see he has asked some women to bed – is this really all that bad? If so, handcuff me officer as I, like most men if we are truly honest, have spent most of my life since 13 years old chasing women to bed in some form or another.

@8 I see where you’re coming from, but the main difference between how decent blokes handle rejection and how those who go too far handle rejection, is that we understand when we are being rejected and that rejection means ending the chasing. The nuance of where the line needs to be drawn between ardent pursuit and unwanted harassment may take some learning, but that learning really needs to be done.

I think the crux is that when power comes into it, rejection is made a lot more risky for the woman (or man) at the receiving end of the unwanted advances and others are far less likely to tell them they are out of line. This is why those with power need to be particularly professional about such things, and those around them need to speak truth to power when they are concerned. When this is lacking, we are in trouble.

The question is, is where did Firecrest Films get the tip off that led to you contributing to a “possible short film looking at gender balance in political parties”.

“Galvanised into membership as a student by the heat of my opposition to the Iraq war and plans for 92-days detention . . . I left shortly afterwards, to become a Labour activist”

I’m assuming you were hit on the head by a brick or something?

Any idea of a discussion into gender balance has now been lost as the rabid dogs of the press now have the scent of wounded prey and are circling around for the kill.
I am intrigued though, as to how Firecrest got hold of your details and how they even knew of your short stint with the LDs. I do wonder what sparked this fresh investigation into life when the press had all the details back in 2010. When did Firecrest first approach you?
An excellent article by the way, more objective than most!

Not *convinced* that rabid dogs hunt in packs, @Keith. I could be wrong.

@9 Ben

Well, as you say, there is a difference between “Want to come to bed?” and “Want to come to bed, if you don’t, you lose your job”. That’s coercion, ergo rape in my book. Never understood why men that desparate don’t just pay for it….much simpler and cheaper in the long run, and much more fun than romancing a manikin, which it would surely be with an uncoperative woman.

I see the macho lib dems sent gay Simon Hughes out on Channel 4 news and Newsnight to defend the mess they are in.

Asking your wife to take your points, before leaving her. Harassing and intimidating woman for sex, and hiding behind a gay man.

Real classy Lib Dems.

Can someone clarify the distinction between “inappropriate sexual touching” and sexual touching that can be deemed appropriate? Is this the same for all women or are men expected to be mind readers on this matter?

Sorry about the rabid dogs bit, I put it down to insomnia – I have just realised it was 4.48am!
As I mentioned above, I am concerned about the timing of this story. I am sure there was no plot to undermine the LibDems, although their response has been woeful,but the only people who seem to have really gained are Channel 4 News. The timing was perfect for them but I wonder how good it is for the actual story and the issues that surround it?
There is now a media scrum, muckraking of the finest kind, what the Liberals knew about Cyril will be next, and a witchhunt for Nick Clegg. Any serious discussion will be lost in sex scandal journalism.
Did Channel 4 hold the report back for their own benefit and to the detriment of the actual story?

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