Thursday, 21 February 2013

Chris Rennard - holy [expletive]

Channel 4 News has just broken the story that the Liberal Democrats are urgently reviewing their internal procedures following publication of serious allegations of sexual harassment against Lib Dem peer and former chief executive officer Chris Rennard.

Now, obviously innocent until proven guilty applies here but when you read the accounts by the alleged victims they sound pretty damn plausible and are being made by people with no reason to make them up - not to mention that some of my friends within the party have mentioned that they'd heard rumours about Rennard before. Which makes it extremely worrying to think about how many people might have been victimised and molested due to the failure of people within the party to do anything.

More widely, this also shows just one of the consequences of organisations not properly dealing with sexual harassment - victims end up leaving the organisations and disengaging because they no longer feel safe. Quite apart from how horrible this must have been for the alleged victims it's scary when you think just how many promising activists and potential politicians might have been turned off of politics because of this kind of behaviour going unpunished.

And the thing is, I've met Chris Rennard - well, that is to say, he came and talked to us at a Liberal Youth conference (I should point out here that Liberal Youth is brilliant at providing safe spaces so even if the allegations are true Rennard shouldn't have had the opportunity to harass anyone at Liberal Youth events) - and I was both impressed by him and found that he seemed fairly likeable, not to mention that he is famous within the party for being a brilliant campaigner. And that's why this is so important.

You see, assuming what Channel 4 and the alleged victims are saying is true, this was something that was known about by several senior people in the party - including Jo Swinson MP and former party president Baroness Ros Scott. Even more worryingly, one of the alleged victims describes being told that nothing could be done about it because no one was willing to make a formal complaint despite her insistence that she would be happy to make a formal complaint.

And the reason that this happened - that victims were ignored and let down by the party - if it happened, is that too many people would have thought "Chris is a nice bloke and he's great at what it does - he couldn't possible really be like that. He might push the boundaries a bit at times but it can't be too bad and it's certainly not anything worth rocking the boat over."

I know this because that's what often happens when it comes to those who commit rape, sexual assault or sexual harassment - the people responsible are quite often people who seem perfectly decent and, for want of a better term, good men (for it is usually, but not always, men) so people refuse to believe that they could be capable of something like that. But the problem is that's the very reason that we live in a culture which allows the vast majority of sexual predators to get away with it.

Time and time again victims are told not to rock the boat. And people who should act on it justify their inaction by telling themselves that there's no point in rocking the boat. But, as is pointed out absolutely brilliantly in the parable of the rats on the boat, that's completely the wrong thing to do:
The people who are doing everything in their power to DEAL WITH THE RAT INFESTATION say “but for fuck’s sake there’s a rat GNAWING AT YOUR ANKLE LET ME JUST THROW HIM OVERBOARD COME ON” and then other people say “oh look he’s only a rat he probably doesn’t MEAN to gnaw at my ankle; that’s just what rats DO” and then the people-trying-to-deal-with-the-rats say “but people keep jumping overboard because they CAN’T BEAR THE FUCKING RATS ANY MORE” and the other people say “oh come on you’re leaping to conclusions we don’t actually KNOW why people leap off the boat, shouting ‘the rats the rats THERE ARE SO MANY RATS ON THIS BOAT’. Why are you going around causing trouble?”. Then the people trying to deal with the rat infestation say “I have had it with these motherfucking rats on this motherfucking boat!” and leap overboard themselves, and the people left shrug and go “Crazy, huh? I wonder why people keep leaping off the boat? It’s probably their time of the month or something. Bitches, man.” and eventually THE RATS TAKE OVER.
This, sadly, is what too much of our society is like at the moment - particularly the hyper-macho culture of politics. People keep asking "why are there so few women in politics" and this is definitely one of the reasons.

If these allegations are true then I am very, very disappointed in the leadership of the party for not properly doing anything about this at the time. And I sincerely hope that having the spotlight of publicity shone on this squalid affair will force the adoption of procedures which means there is no potential for this to ever happen again so that our party can become the safe space for everyone that it damn well should be.

ADDENDUM:

Upon reflection, I think it's also worth bearing in mind that Chris Rennard also grew up in what can mildly be described as "challenging" circumstances and pretty much spent all of his life from his early teens in a political culture that was, at the time, incredibly male-dominated and sexist (it's improved significantly by now but not by enough) which might go some way to understanding why, if the allegations are true, he didn't see any problem with his behaviour.

It doesn't for a minute excuse him of responsibility for what he might have done but I think it's also worth mentioning as a reminder that sexual assault and harassment isn't just a case of some people being inherently inclined to do it - culture and society creates sexual assault and the only thing that can properly end it is a change in that culture and society.

27 comments:

  1. Wonder why it came out now, anything to do with a by-election?
    Sorry to post as anonymous I do not have relevant accounts.

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    1. Even if you don't have accounts you should still be able to post using a pseudonym. But no worries.

      As for the timing, yes it's probably definitely been revealed now because of the by-election but that doesn't have anything to do with whether the allegations are true or not.

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  2. I hate to go all Rod Stewart on you here George, but:

    have I told you lately that I love you?

    This is far more measured and sensible than anything I can manage at the moment, and makes some very reasonable points. Thank you for speaking when I'm too angry and incoherent to do it.

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  3. Here here Jennie - very well done George, an extremely astute blog. You are absolutely right to highlight the impact that this has on victims. I had a friend who unfortunately received unwelcome advances from her boss, during her probationary period (of course), it shattered her self-confidence. Not to say that what she had to put up with was anything 'out of the ordinary' but rather that she couldn't pour a glass of wine over the idiot, as one would in a bar!

    Far worse, unfortunately, was the control he had over her emotions. She ended up thinking she was mad, without a shadow of doubt before this man was a perv, he was a BULLY. Since nobody likes a bully I can't see why people still allow the boat 'not to be rocked'. Though sadly, Jo Swinson also stood back from the tuition fees choice. We need a revival of Charlie Kennedy - a true conviction politician!

    Hope you're well and once again George - very, very well said. Georgia

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  4. Thanks very much for the lovely comments :)

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  5. "Brilliant campaigner"? Isn't this the man who ordered that ordinary people's homes be carpet bombed with leaflets every day (and sometimes more)?

    Ordinary voters started telling me they wouldn't vote LibDem unless I stopped delivering leaflets. When I observed to local party members that people were overwhelmed with election leaflets and getting angry about it, I was told there was no alternative because Lord Reynard had told us to deliver all those leaflets. !!!

    Then again, I'm just an ordinary person who was doing a bit of leafleting for you, not a LibDem - so I stopped delivering leaflets to those houses despite what members said. The degree of compliance and kow-towing to authority of ordinary members of your party was quite a surprise. I would've expected better of you.

    As for your "He seemed like a nice chap" - Duh! How naive.

    Still - the non-totally-naive bits of the above blog are undoubtedly true. People in all sorts of institutions get away with bullying and inappropriate behaviour because they have power over others' pay and prospects. And maybe no-one else believes the victims, or they don't realise how serious or widespread it is.

    Don't rule out the fact that some bullies and abusers are clever at picking the right victim or covering their tracks.

    Then again, others in a position to do something about it might not care about anyone else but themselves or are just as bad in the same or some other way. Or they're being bullied themselves, have too much to lose or are encouraged/forced to give up. I should think these last reasons are particularly prevalent in politics.

    Looks like yet another way in which you're "no different from the others" doesn't it. All a very great shame. :-\

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    1. My entire point of "he seemed like a nice chap" bit was to illustrate the point that too often people naively assume that nice people can't be predators and fail to tackle sexual harassment and assault because of it. You've clearly misinterpreted the entire post.

      As for campaigning tactics, simple fact is that Rennard's methods netted us a massive increase in councillors and MPs. Broadly speaking, they work hundreds of times more often than they don't. Not that that's anything to do with the topic in hand.

      But please, keep calling me naive if you wish. I'll just keep calling you a confused individual who's too lazy to read what I've written properly.

      I am fed up of having to defend what I write just because some people can't seem to achieve a basic level of reading comprehension.

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  6. Great post, George. One point I'd like to add is the reason why forcing a resignation without making the reason public is not sufficient: it contributes to the problem you discuss in your addendum, which is that harassment and discrimination are made possible by a culture that doesn't clearly mark the boundaries of acceptable behaviour in this regard. Disposing of the problem quietly may deal with the individual (although it may also just displace the problem onto some other group); it doesn't communicate to others in the original group that this behaviour is unacceptable and will be dealt with accordingly. Some people don't believe the first half of that message until they see the second, so just having the right policy statements in place doesn't get the job done.

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  7. George, your analysis on why harassment must be dealt with properly is right. We do have to be careful, though, that we don't jump to conclusions and make judgements about how any individual has acted in this.

    We need to be careful to give people credit for doing everything they could to ensure that the complaints were taken seriously. It may be that they came up against brick walls and if that's the case then that needs to be addressed.

    We can't make judgements now, though. The review needs to be completed in a calm, professional and balanced manner in which anyone who has anything to say is listened to.

    This is a painful period for the party. I've known Chris for the better part of 20 years and I like and respect him and what he's contributed to the party and it's hard to hear these things said about him. I also like and respect the women concerned. I've worked with both of them in the past.

    If I could articulate one hope out of this it's that the party as a whole comes to a greater understanding of issues relating to gender and power. In my experience, lessons are best learned in a calm, professional and non threatening environment. That's not to say that the lessons can't be difficult, but the most important thing is that we come out of this wiser and with greater awareness. Does that make sense?

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    1. Do the Liberal Democrats have a formal disciplinary process to deal with such allegations? Most workplaces do, and I would imagine mainstream political parties are no different.

      Somebody facing such accusations would be suspended while an investigation was taking place. Will this happen?

      I would imagine that the Liberal Democrat's reputation on gender and equality issues will be lost unless it can be shown that, no matter who the individual concerned is, any issues are dealt with openly, and, any punishment, proportionate.

      It's worth looking at the SWP, although that case is much worse, to see what happens when it appears that a party leadership puts itself before its members on gender issues.

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  8. What I can say is that Ros Scott was extremely concerned about the allegations but frustrated by the fact that people were understandably reluctant to come forward. CR ceased to be Chief Executive in the first year of her presidency.

    The idea that this is something to do with the by-election is fanciful: C4 had started their investigation before Huhne pleaded guilty.

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  9. When I went to university during the 1960s nobody ever heard about sexual harrasment. I remember one female student was very worried about her finals.She went to see her tutor, slept with him and he showed her the exam papers, among other things no doubt, and of course she got her degree.

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    1. Your point being?

      Oh, hang on, you're bringing up this anecdote to imply that the alleged victims in this case might have led Rennard on to get ahead and so the whole thing's their fault.

      Obvious troll is obvious.

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    2. My point is the change in sexual mores since the 1960s makes it difficult to find fault in anyone.
      I take it Mr Potter you are a firm supporter of Gladstonian Liberalism who practices temperance, attends Free Church every Sunday and doesn't smoke or eat meat for that matter.
      "Ye judge after the flesh; I judge no man."

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    3. Sexual mores once said that a man could rape his wife and there was nothing wrong with it.

      However, to force any kind of sexual touching or activity on someone who hasn't consented to it is wrong and always has been. Full stop.

      Liberalism is, fundamentally, about the freedom of the individual. And freedom from unwanted sexual molestation is definitely part of that.

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    4. *and that there was nothing wrong with it.

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    5. The question remains if there was an indecent assault then why wasn't a complaint made to the police at the time?

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    6. For a variety of possible reasons which are well known in sexual assault cases: such as not wanting to jeopardise their careers, being embarrassed or ashamed about it, blaming themselves for it, being afraid of not being believed, etc, etc. All the reasons why formal complaints to the police aren't always made are very well trodden and easily findable to read up on.

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    7. You so quick to rush to judgment,no need for any inquiry then?

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  10. Thank you for your thoughtful and considered post George, I feel really angry and upset by this C4 news-item. Whilst interning for a well-known Lib Dem a few years ago I was sexually harassed and made to feel like it was my fault. There was a similar occurrence when I tried to report the issue, with no-one willing to act upon my complaint. I was simply branded a trouble-maker. It really doesn't surprise me that these allegations have been covered up for so long....

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    1. I'm so sorry for the way you've been treated Rebecca. But I also really hope you might consider making another formal complaint now - with the spotlight on things then hopefully complaints will be taken more seriously now and it's important that, where possible, people come forward because it's almost certain that something like this is just the tip of the iceberg and until people realise this then the change that is needed will struggle to happen.

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  11. This is all looking like another impromptu apology to camera by Mr Clegg, to me!

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  12. All political parties that I know more than a little about are toxic in this regard with many men in senior positions seeing access to women who will "put out and shut up" as a perk. When the women get in the way, they are dumped or dumped on.

    Thanks to who the Labour candidate was, the Bermondsey by-election has been talked about ever since. What's rarely mentioned is that the Tory candidate should have been Sara Keyes, but her then partner made damn sure that she was dumped. She couldn't be a candidate because of their affair, but he could stay chair of the party (until she went public over another bit of bad behaviour and I suspect that had she not discovered what he'd done to her career, she would have kept quiet about that).

    In the LibDems, at least two men in very senior positions did much the same. When I discovered what was happening to one, I was outraged. She was told that she would have to sacrifice the best chance she would ever have to become an MP because he didn't want to risk anyone finding out about his adultery.

    So having known Chris for years, I went to tell him that it was unacceptable. He nodded and nothing happened, so I quit the party. Somewhere, I have the tape of the meeting, but it's now clearer why nothing did.

    At some point, someone is going to look at the list of women who stood in 1983 and 1987, but not in 1992 or since, and ask them what happened. Not all of them had this done to them by any means, but I hope some of those who did finally go public - when women meet up, they often talk about this to each other, regardless of party - and the party loses several male peers as a result.

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  13. I know many of the people involved and referred to here and am a believer in the truth coming out in any investigation and court. I believe it is no coincidence that these issues are aired when Chris is no longer in a position of power just as those against Jimmy Saville were aired when he was dead. Forget any bye-election.

    Unfortunately many powerful liberals offer sex and many are only too happy to sleep with or sexually comply with their requests. Even when the other party is committed to another. Bravo to those that do not give in.

    The liberal party is littered with perverse and contravercial sexuality and this means the rats have high survivial rates ... too many have too much to hide ... and I am keeping a diary.

    The other issue is that confidentiality agreements should be outlawed. It is not just the health service that suffers.

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    1. Many non-liberals happen to be fond of sex too.

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  14. Be aware, if you are going to succeed in politics [and I hope you do 'cos we need politicians with your ideology] you're going to have to be quite a pushy bastard. To do that and win will take a lot of 'balls' and that'll mean testosterone!

    On the plus side that means a lot of 'get up and go' on the minus side that means a stronger than average sex drive. With the help of the right partner that can mean extra 'get up and go' but if things go wrong they can go VERY wrong.

    IMHO the whole electoral system needs to be turned upside down so that people get into politics because they're good at policy-making NOT because they're good at winning elections but I can't see that happening in my lifetime.

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