Recent Articles

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

by Ellie Cumbo     February 25, 2013 at 8:50 am

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.

What child-smacking ban? Why Mail was wrong on the law

by Ellie Cumbo     January 30, 2012 at 8:45 am

“Smacking ban led to riots”, said yesterday’s Mail on Sunday in response to comments by Tottenham MP David Lammy. Despite the outrage, the question virtually absent from the debate was: ‘what smacking ban’?

The MoS goes on helpfully to explain: “previously parents could use ‘reasonable chastisement’, while the new definition prohibits any force that causes ‘reddening of the skin’.”

This is inexcusably wrong on the law: reddening of the skin is in fact the very example provided by the CPS of what is covered by the defence now called “reasonable punishment”.
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Police forces face the biggest shake-up in decades and no one’s noticed

by Ellie Cumbo     September 16, 2011 at 11:04 am

Yesterday, an Act of Parliament came into being that will completely overhaul the principles and practice of policing in England and Wales in just over a year’s time.

November 2012 will see the election of 41 new Policing and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), directly elected by the residents of each police area outside London, who will hire and fire chief constables, decide the policing priorities for each area and take over the Home Secretary’s job of setting the budget for each force.

The plans have been rejected outright by the Labour Opposition, whose response has mainly focused on the costs and the poor timing of the plans alongside police cuts.
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A return of the death penalty? Let’s not be complacent

by Ellie Cumbo     July 31, 2011 at 3:40 pm

The death penalty is almost certainly not coming back.

No matter what last-minute legal wheezes Tory MPs are offering, having apparently become aware that there is a thing called international law, no government is going to spend the time or the money rebuilding a system that was dismantled wholesale by most of the civilised world.

But this does not mean that liberals shouldn’t sit up and pay attention.
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Ed Balls’ speech: Will Osborne the Ostrich fly?

by Ellie Cumbo     June 16, 2011 at 5:00 pm

It was a speech about risk that took several risks of its own.

Ed Balls opened his first major speech since becoming Shadow Chancellor in January not by attacking the Osborne plan, or presenting his alternative, but by revisiting the events that led to Black Wednesday nearly twenty years ago.

He went on to accuse the Chancellor of putting short-term political interests (such as a possible pre-election income tax cut) before the long-term health of the economy, and then proposed an emergency reverse to the VAT rise that could potentially lay him open to the same charge.
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Lecturers plan first UK-wide strike in five years

by Ellie Cumbo     March 22, 2011 at 9:00 am

Today, lecturers in 47 universities in England will walk out, following similar actions in Scotland and Wales last week, and Northern Ireland yesterday. This will be followed on Thursday March 24th by UK-wide strike action, the first taken by academics in five years. Thousands of staff from 63 universities are expected to join the picket lines unless successful negotiations take place in the next 48 hours.

The dispute centres on planned changes to the USS, the main pension scheme used in the Higher Education sector. These include increasing employee contributions while freezing those of employers, and moving new entrants from a final salary scheme to a version based on career average earnings. The University and College Union says that the propsals are motivated not by financial pressure on the scheme, but by a straightforward unwillingness to pay, which the universities deny, citing the cost implications of people living longer.
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Why is the Census compulsory while voting isn’t?

by Ellie Cumbo     March 10, 2011 at 5:01 pm

The census form in particular is an impressive-looking beast: at 32 sickly mauve pages, each stuffed with text and speckled with tickboxes.

But more interesting is the seven-word dictum that greets you cheerlessly before you even open the envelope: your census response is required by law.

This is in contrast to the local elections paraphernalia coming soon to a doormat near you: registration forms, confirmation forms, polling cards; all labelled “important”, but not actually necessary.
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When will something be done about street harassment?

by Ellie Cumbo     March 8, 2011 at 8:25 pm

Alongside the focus on the most serious forms of violence, discrimination and exploitation, it is important to find room to talk about the minor, everyday acts of casual contempt that are still a reality for almost all women, including right here in the UK.

One of the most prevalent and least examined of these, which urgently needs more input not just from policy-makers, but from journalists and researchers and even bloggers, is sexual harassment on the streets.
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