Monday, 20 January 2014

Lib Dems and Sexism: Rennard Isn't the Real Issue

It would be easy to dismiss the Lib Dems' tribulations over Chris Rennard's alleged misdemeanours as simply another example of a rootless party in terminal decline with Nick Clegg's vacillation over how to react as little more than another example of middle-ground muddle. Yet to do so would be to miss an important point - and this is precisely what much of the media is indeed doing, focusing its concerns on either printing semi-salacious articles about what the former party Chief Executive is accused of doing or alternatively broadcasting a blow by blow account of arguments between Clegg and time-servers in the Lords, many of whom most of the public have never heard of.

But there is a deeper issue here, and that is what some of the Lib Dems apparently feel is acceptable behaviour and how seriously, or not, the party has set out to challenge and change it. Read former MP and Rennard ally Alex Carlile in today's Daily Mail (what else!) and you find him caustically diminishing the complaints of four women against his friend. Meanwhile on BBC Radio 4, Lib Dem MEP Chris Davies suggested that the allegations were equivalent to "an Italian man pinching a woman's bottom" a few years ago - with one swift step adding a dash of racial stereotyping to the stew of alleged sexism.

The Lib Dems' problem though is not simply that their byzantine disciplinary rules use bizarre levels of proof - beyond reasonable doubt is normally reserved for criminal cases investigated and tested by the police and CPS. Non-court cases such as workplace conduct hearings normally use the more realistic test of determining what occurred on the balance of probabilities. To insist on a criminal-level of proof for in-house cases of alleged harassment, which will very often involve one person's word against another, is in effect to make it impossible for victims to pursue a complaint with any real prospect of success. It potentially protects the culprits to the detriment of the victims and is completely out of place in any modern organisation. This is the culture of 1950's offices like the male-dominated one in Madmen rather than a supposedly progressive 21st century political party.

It might not greatly matter beyond the confines of the Lib Dems were it not for the fact that this party and the people involved in this argument, including Clegg, Rennard and Carlile, have been responsible for passing legislation which now makes it much harder for women (and men) to pursue claims of sexual harassment in the workplace via employment tribunals. For the first time, it now costs to go to an employment tribunal hearing - £1,200 for a sex discrimination case (compared to £390 for unfair dismissal claims). Driven forward by Lib Dem Vince Cable's department, significant new obstacles have been erected against anyone challenging workplace sexism.

The Lib Dems have got themselves into a dreadful mess over this. Yet the real tragedy is that the vagaries of the electoral system that delivered us the Coalition Government have already allowed their muddled and ignorant thinking to drive a coach and horses through years of progress towards ending sexism in the workplace. Watching all this unfold though, it isn't in the least surprising.

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