Imagine this. An MP from the government, a man who has served his party for many years and commands a great deal of respect, is accused of sexual harassment. Not by one person, but by four separate individuals, dating from the early 2000s. There is talk of a cover up, of senior figures in the party having turned a blind eye. An investigation is launched which, although it does not find the MP in question guilty, concludes that his actions caused ‘distress to a number of women’; that the evidence for the MPs actions were ‘broadly credible’ but that because it is almost impossible to prove if his intentions were to cause distress, no further action will be taken. It is suggested that the MP apologises.
However, no apology is forthcoming and after issuing a brief statement it is clear that the accused is intended to resume his role within the party, one which has been suspended. Furthermore another MP comes out, very publicly, in his defense. In a newspaper article he compares the actions of the investigation to the North Korean judicial system and appears on television launching a full fronted defense of his colleague. The party’s leader calls for an apology, but due to the internal rules of the party itself, cannot take action against the accused to force such a statement. A stalemate has been reached and, with the MP planning to return to his duties today, the question of whether women can feel welcome in the party hangs in the air. What happens next?
Astute readers will have by now noticed that, with one exception, the above narrative has been played out over the course of the last week. However, while it is true that one of the parties of government is in such a crisis there is one big difference between the truth and the story above. The man accused of sexual harassment is no an MP and neither is the colleague defending him. They are, instead, both members of the House of Lords.
The Liberal Democrats, to which both men in question belong, are by their very nature, fond of voting. I volunteered for my local Lib Dem party when I was growing up and, even on a very small scale, one could tell they loved a vote. At a time when Tony Blair was running Britain and often ignoring public opinion and his own party, the slightly quaint way the Lib Dems held elections on almost everything was quite appealing. Now, having found themselves in government and with a scandal on their hands, one suspects the party leadership wishes it had more executive power. Nick Clegg, despite urging an apology, can do very little on his own to take action against Lord Rennard. Instead an array of people and committees holds the real power. However, while democratic principals may be causing a headache for Nick Clegg, there is a very undemocratic stench to the affair.
Outside of the Liberal Democrats, no one has ever voted for Chris Rennard. While that would not be an issue where he just a leader figure in the party it is an issue because he is also a life member of the House of Lords. No one elected him to that position and no one can vote to have him removed from the upper chamber of British politics. Whatever one thinks of his actions there is no constituency to hold him responsible. Even if the Lib Dems, after the prolonged (and in a way, slightly admirable) democratic wrangling, punish his refusal to apologize; he will still be free to sit in the House of Lords. So, while the main lesson of the ‘Rennard affair’ is that, for women, the patriarchal world politics is still not the most inviting of places, there is a second lesson here. A man with incredible influence over the way elected politicians think and act, and who can himself vote on laws, is accountable to almost no one. Such is the nature of British democracy.