Sunday 1 June 2014

Should Rennard be reinstated?

Things could not be much worse for Liberal Democrat party. After catastrophic results at both council and European elections a couple of weeks ago, there have been questions raised about Nick Clegg's leadership, and resignation of senior LibDem Matthew Oakeshott. Now it's being suggested that Chris Rennard, former Chief Executive who was suspended from the party in January after allegations of sexual harassment were made against him, should be reinstated.

A few days ago, Rennard issued an apology to the women who had complained about him, something he'd been asked to do before his suspension. His supporters, who include powerful people such as Alex Carlile and David Steel, argue that the party needs him: he has undoubted skills that have come from experience of managing the party over many years. In particular, Carlile is quoted as saying that Rennard had now done ‘everything asked of him’, and:
Lord Rennard has been harassed by this inquiry for a year and a half nearly…He [Rennard] may have misjudged situations and been less aware of the personal space of his interlocutors and has misjudged the effect of what he perceived as friendliness would have on them. That’s exactly what he apologised for
I was particularly intrigued by comments from Shirley Williams, who said on Radio 4 that the case had been 'blown up'. She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "He was a very decent and loyal member of the party as the chief executive, he did huge amounts for the party," adding: "If I may say so, there are some comparisons which suggest there are real, serious sexual harassments and so forth, and I don't think he's one of the most serious cases."

Meanwhile, Rennard is threatening legal action against the Lib Dems if he is expelled from the party.

So it seems that the case in favour of Rennard's reinstatement is that:
  • He is a superb politician of value to his party
  • He didn't do anything wrong - or at least not intentionally
  • Insofar as other people think he did something wrong, he's said he's sorry that they are upset
  • He could cause a lot of trouble for the party if they don't let him back in
  • He has suffered enough
I'm amazed that powerful supporters of Rennard seem to think that this makes a credible case for Rennard's reinstatement.

Of course politicians aren't perfect. They are human beings like the rest of us, doing a difficult job. I don't like deceit but I reckon, for instance, that infidelity is so common a human failing that it would be ridiculous to sack a politician over an affair. Furthermore, I don't assume that a man who makes sexual advances to a woman is a sexist beast: if no man ever did that, then the human race would die out. And let's not pretend that such advances are always shunned by women.

But context is everything. Flirting was invented as a means of establishing whether your advances are indeed welcome. If a man isn't receiving clear signals of interest from a woman he should keep well away. To impose yourself on another person who is giving you no encouragement whatsoever is a violation of personal space. It's hard to believe that Rennard can't read the signals - rather, it seems he chose to ignore them.

I disagree with Shirley Williams that this is not serious. I'm sure Shirley will have had her fair share of hands on knees or pats on the bottom over the years, and either ignored them or given a withering put-down. Some of the women who complained about Rennard have been interviewed on TV and, as you would expect for women who have made a mark in politics, they are articulate and gutsy and look well able to stand up for themselves. Nevertheless, it's clear that they were upset and disturbed by Rennard's behaviour - my impression was that it was partly because it was so surprising - a sudden grope out of left field, so to speak, without any warning.

Then there's the question of power. This piece by Polly Toynbee argues it better than I could, emphasising that  more powerful you get, the less likely you are to be challenged in anything you do.  Since complaints about Rennard date back at least to 2007, it's clear that this is a pattern. I find myself wondering whether the incidents that we're aware of are just the tip of the iceberg, and whether other women were also affected but too afraid to speak out.

Perhaps the strongest argument against Rennard, though, is not his wandering hands, but the way he responded as events unfolded. First with denial ("I didn't do anything wrong"), then with threats ("I'll take you to court") and finally with a plea for our sympathy ("the events of the last fourteen months have been a most unhappy experience for him, his family and friends"). The apology was supposed to "draw a line" under this issue, but it does just the opposite. If there's one thing his apology makes clear, it's that he just doesn't get it - and nor, it seems, do his supporters. His words (with my emphasis) speak for themselves:
He does recognise as suggested in the full report, that he may well have encroached upon “personal space”. In relation to this, Alistair Webster suggested in his report that Lord Rennard “may well wish to consider an apology”. He would therefore like to apologise sincerely for any such intrusion and assure them that this would have been inadvertent. He hereby expresses his regret for any harm or embarrassment caused to them or anything which made them feel uncomfortable.
Here's what a proper apology might have looked like:
I accept that I encroached upon personal space of the women, and in so doing caused them harm and embarrassment. I sincerely regret doing so and undertake not to make unwanted physical advances to women in future.
Alas, we're not going to see that, because Rennard doesn't think it's true. And as long as that remains the case, then he, and his supporters, are a massive liability to the party.


  1. Why do you say that "It's hard to believe that Rennard can't read the signals"? Aren't there individual differences in our ability to read others' emotions? It doesn't seem beyond the realms of possibility to suppose that that's an area in which Rennard struggles.

  2. If he's so blind to social signals, would he have made it as far as he did in politics?

  3. As he wasn't found guilty I cant see why he was made to apologise. He was either guilty and therefore appropriate action should have been taken OR he was innocent. Innocent people shouldnt have to apologise.

    1. by innocent, do you mean you think the women were making it all up? Or just that he wasn't guilty in law?

  4. There are other women who decided they didn't want to disturb their lives and careers by joining with the four.