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Lib Dem Activists Fight to Uphold Core Values

20/01/2014 09:21 GMT | Updated 21/03/2014 09:59 GMT

The questions raised by Alistair Webster QC's statement on the report in to allegations against Chris Rennard leave a bitter taste. Webster notes that "the evidence of behaviour which violated the personal space and autonomy of the complainants was broadly credible", and "that Lord Rennard ought to reflect upon the effect that his behaviour has had and the distress which it caused and that an apology would be appropriate, as would a commitment to change his behaviour in future."

This is not exclusively a Liberal Democrat issue, nor exclusively a women's issue. Sexual harassment occurs in many organisations but the particular pressure cooker atmosphere in politics ensures that many such complaints are never aired in public - victims are urged to think of the party's reputation and told that 'no one wants to make a formal complaint'. Now that we are in a rare position of multiple women going public with allegations of sexual misconduct against an individual, now more than ever Liberal Democrats should lead by example, and show their boldness.

But this issue has long since been poorly handled by the upper echelons of the Liberal Democrats. Indeed, rather than campaigning on the doorsteps to sell liberalism to voters, grassroots members have been reduced to campaigning within the party to uphold its core values. For liberals, equality and a rejection of abuses of power are fundamental principles that drive our instinctive reactions. Without a strategy for dealing with a difficult situation, one must rely on instinct. In lieu of a clear strategy from the top, this weekend it has been the activists, rather than Nick Clegg, who have shown strong leadership and recourse to these values. By failing to immediately call for Chris Rennard to apologise-or-resign (as he reportedly did do in the case of Jenny Tonge in 2012), Clegg left a vacuum which activists have thankfully filled. As one alleged victim Bridget Harris claims, Nick Clegg had a duty to show moral leadership, but didn't. The announcement from his office on Saturday that he is now of the view that Rennard should apologise before rejoining the Liberal Democrat group in the House of Lords is very welcome, but once again, is late.

Amongst Liberal Democrats, there is a noticeable age gap in many of the responses to the allegations against Rennard; those showing sympathy for his position, have tended to be over forty. His colleague Lord Newby reportedly dismissed the allegations as a "mild kind of sexual harassment". This misses the point. Allegations of sexual harassment and of abuses of power, should not be trivialised.

By contrast, members under forty tend to be far more united in their condemnation of any kind of alleged sexual harassment. Liberal Youth were quick to issue their own statement calling for Chris Rennard to apologise. This inter-generational divide should concern Nick Clegg. He's already apologised for the tuition fees debacle; but as the party heads into the next general election, it still has far more serious fences to mend with younger generations. Any failure to take decisive, appropriate action will be interpreted as being out of touch with the social values and concerns of younger people. Even more obviously, if the party fails to show that it is serious in standing up for women's rights, it risks alienating half of the population - if it hasn't already done so.

Alistair Webster QC's careful phrasing leaves serious questions hanging. Rennard's reported refusal to even offer an apology ensures that the matter remains unresolved. Curiouser still is the revelation by Rennard on social media this weekend that he had "tried to make/consider any apology years ago, but was totally rebuffed by the complainants" - Chris Rennard must surely clarify what he meant by that post. While such questions remain, the Liberal Democrats should not rush to welcoming him back to a position of prominence in parliament and in policy-making. To do so would be to show that it's 'business as usual' in the old boy's club of Westminster, and would make the Liberal Democrats outspoken apologists of an abusive political culture.