As the Rennard furore fades, all parties must reflect on how the Lib Dems got it so badly wrong

Here are some basics from the world of law and policy on sexual harassment and violence, which are worth bearing in mind in reviewing procedures.

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Ellie Cumbo is a senior policy lobbyist on crime, justice and gender equality issues. She is also an activist with UK Feminista and sits on the Fabian Women’s Network Executive Committee

When the allegations against Lord Rennard first emerged a year ago, I wrote about them as someone who worked for the party at the time.

I referred to the institutional features that make political parties ill-equipped to stamp out this kind of behaviour (power imbalances, gender distribution, constant fear of the media, and candidates’ lack of employment rights), and said that they were similar across the board, which is why other parties should be looking to their internal workings too.

The immediate reaction from parts of the media illustrated many of my points. There was little interest in teasing out what the procedure was supposed to be, and it was the Lib Dem figures that journalists most wanted to write about, rather than those who actually had key responsibilities, who tended to get the blame.

My blog confirmed the account already given by Alison Smith that she had discussed her experience with my then boss, Jo Swinson, and that Jo had then referred them to the Chief Whip Paul Burstow.

A few days later, one newspaper used my comments to suggest that Jo herself might have orchestrated a cover-up, despite being a 27-year-old backbencher at the time, with little more authority over the all-powerful chief executive than the complainants had themselves.

Thankfully, many articles have since been written about the case by people who see it for what it is: a) an indictment of how the powerful are held to account in modern Britain, even in progressive-minded organisations, and b) the latest one-word answer to the question of why feminism is still needed.

But the job of forensically analysing how the party got it so badly wrong, and learning lessons from it, has yet to be done – either by the Liberal Democrats, or, as far as we know, by other parties keen to get their own houses in order.

Where steps in that direction have been taken, it has largely been by those without a specific interest in politics, such as this factual but excoriating taken on the Lib Dem rule book itself, and particularly the famous “beyond reasonable doubt” standard of proof, by employment lawyer Darren Newman.

Here, then, are some basics from the world of law and policy on sexual harassment and violence, which are worth bearing in mind in reviewing procedures.

Firstly, sexual allegations, by their nature, almost invariably lack outside witnesses, since even intimate moments that are consensual tend to happen in private.

So most cases are of the “X’s word against Y” variety, which often makes it difficult to find someone guilty to the required standard of proof, even when they are. This is one of the reasons why fewer than one in 30 rape victims will see their attacker convicted.

Secondly, victims are far less likely to come forward in sexual cases than with other forms of complaint, at least to the authorities.

The most recent Crime Survey for England and Wales statistics found that 28 per cent of women who had been subject to the most serious offences had told nobody, 57 per cent had told someone who was not from the police, and that this was most likely to be friends, relatives or neighbours.

And thirdly, for these reasons, by the time someone who is guilty of sexual harassment or assault is investigated, there’s often a pattern of past behaviour that was never reported, as with Jimmy Savile.

But even in the criminal law, where ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ is the right standard of proof, a willingness to reform bad procedures can go a long way. Last year, the then director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer announced that  prosecutors would no longer approach a sexual abuse allegation by focusing solely on the victim’s perceived credibility.

Prosecutors will also be instructed to disregard common myths about how victims should behave, such as that they are less likely to be telling the truth if they delay reporting an incident, would be disregarded. What steps have political parties taken to ensure that these moves, which serve victims better without being unfair to the accused, are replicated?

And crucially, what steps are they taking to ensure that all their members, from high-profile candidates to those who just attend the occasional meeting, would know how to report sexual misconduct, and feel able to do so, in future?

Whose job is it within party offices, and even constituencies and branches, to be a first point of contact, steering people towards the rules and procedures that most members don’t know? How does a party reach out to find other potential victims, if Channel 4 News doesn’t step in and do it for them?

As the Rennard furore eventually wanes, it will be crucial that the parties themselves assume responsibility for answering these questions. It might not be glamorous or media-friendly, but rules matter.

And as anyone who has suffered harassment from someone who has power over them will know, it’s the people with the least power to change them to whom they matter the most.

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