Over the last few days, I have been dismayed by insensitive and intemperate language used by senior people in the party. Those in elected office, parliamentarians and councillors really should be using their positions to soothe and heal. Basically, if you can't say anything nice, you shouldn't be saying anything at all.
The way I feel is that people I like and respect are involved in all angles of this chain of events. I can't describe to you how much that hurts.When we hurt, it can be tempting to lash out. I have seen an awful lot of unhelpful comments which trivialise and even attack the women involved. These range from Dick Newby on Channel 4 suggesting that the allegations were mild to Jasper Gerard's appalling World at One interview to Tony Greaves suggesting half the men aged over 50 in the Lords behaved like that to a senior parliamentarian with a previous hostile history with one of the women taking to Twitter to attack her. Thankfully those last comments were quickly deleted.
Lord Rennard, of course, denies absolutely the allegations which have been made against him. He has the right to a fair hearing within the Party's disciplinary processes. Comments which attack the women making the allegations, especially when they come from people who are perceived to have a close association with Chris, do not help him or anybody else.
And then, today, we have allegations of a whispering campaign against Lord Rennard in the Independent on Sunday where some party members have made some comments which I wish they hadn't made, very much of the "if I didn't see it, it didn't happen" variety, or suggesting that anyone who wants a political career should be tough enough to deal with the behaviour described. I am kicking myself now because a journalist from the IoS phoned me on Thursday afternoon and I basically said to him that every second I spent speaking to him was a second I wasn't speaking to voters in Eastleigh and got on with my phone banking. I wish I'd added my voice now, saying pretty much what I've said about this being a painful time for the party and how we needed to sort it. It's interesting that other activists appear to have said that, but the paper has chosen not to quote them:
But, despite complaints that the Lib Dems were the victims of "sensationalised" reporting in the run-up to the by-election, the affair has opened up fresh rifts from the grass roots of the party upwards. Yesterday, a number of Lib Dem activists demanded full disclosure over the investigation into the allegations.
But several others rallied around Lord Rennard – credited for developing the style of "pavement politics" that has won a series of election victories – and claimed that if there was impropriety, the complainants should have handled the situation better.
If the Independent wants to write a split story in the run-up to our Conference, then maybe they should stick to secret courts, where activists really are at loggerheads with the leadership.
These sorts of comments reported in the Independent and elsewhere not only hurtful for the women involved, but they can be very upsetting for any woman who has been sexually harassed or assaulted to read. And if they are thinking about coming forward to report anything to this or any other organisation, then they might think twice about it. I hope that they don't because there are many, many people who will support them in the process.
Let's think about this. If you are burgled, or have your wallet pick-pocketed, everyone has sympathy for you. If your tyres get slashed or you're mugged in the street, friends and colleagues queue up to offer help. If somebody in Indonesia defrauds your bank account, then everyone soothes you as you rage at them. That spirit of co-operation extends to all sorts of crime, except one.
If you are raped or sexually assaulted or harassed, the prevailing attitude is too often that it's not that bad, or you must have done something to deserve it. Were you drunk? Were you wearing a short skirt? The Not Ever campaign run by the Scottish Government has some good counter arguments and explains why it is wrong to blame the victims. There have also been some really helpful blog posts written about the nature of sexual harassment and why we should take it seriously. Posts by Gillian Gloyer, Rachel Colman-Finch and Louise Shaw talk a lot of sense and make their points without demeaning other people.
I want this party to come out of this painful process stronger, with a better understanding than it currently has on issues surrounding gender and power. The more temperate and constructive language we all try and use now, the easier that will be. Councillors and parliamentarians need to set an example of respectful and sensitive behaviour. Before they speak, they need to think about how their comments might affect other people.There is a lot of very raw emotion and stress about. If there ever was a time for empathy, it's now.