NICK CLEGG admitted the Liberal Democrats had “let people down” as he took centre stage last night at the start of a potentially problematic party conference.
The Deputy Prime Minister, the MP for Sheffield Hallam, warned activists they had to take a “long, hard look in the mirror” after a number of women raised allegations of sexual harassment.
Mr Clegg and his allies are hoping this weekend’s spring gathering in Brighton will help them build on their victory in the Eastleigh by-election.
The conference is, however, being held against a backdrop of allegations about inappropriate behaviour by the party’s ex-chief executive Lord Rennard – claims he has strongly denied.
Clashes are also expected with activists this weekend over so-called secret courts legislation and welfare cuts.
Lib Dem president Tim Farron has even warned the party is in a “critical state” and should not assume it has a right to survive.
But Mr Clegg denied he was leading a party on the brink. “No, not at all,” he said on his arrival at conference. “We are in good spirits.”
He later took the unusual step of coming on stage at the beginning of the traditional rally event.
Reminding activists it was International Women’s Day, he said it was “right that – following the events of recent weeks – we take a long, hard look in the mirror”.
“I won’t talk about the specific allegations,” he said. “They will be investigated thoroughly and independently and we must respect due process. And we must remember that due process is for the accused as well as the accusers.
“But I do want to talk about the other side of this. The fact that the women involved feel let down. They deserved to have their concerns and allegations examined thoroughly and properly dealt with. But clearly, that has not always been the case.
“When concerns were brought to the attention of members of my team we acted to address them. But this should not have just been the responsibility of a few individuals acting with the best of intentions.
“It must be the responsibility of the party as a whole to make sure we have the processes and support structures in place now and in the future.
“We didn’t, and as a result we let people down. Liberal Democrats, that is not acceptable to me.”
Mr Clegg said he had joined the party because he believed in “empowerment, freedom, dignity”.
“I believe that, where an individual feels that they have been badly treated, or that power has been abused, they must have confidence that those concerns will be properly addressed,” he added.
He said two inquiries would look at, respectively, the specific allegations against Lord Rennard and the wider party processes.
“I will drive whatever changes are necessary to stop this ever happening again,” he told party members.
“Sexism must have no place in the Liberal Democrats. Harassment must have no place in the Liberal Democrats. Abuse of power and position must have no place in the Liberal Democrats.”
Mr Farron, in a wide-ranging interview with The House magazine, likened the party to a “cockroach” for its ability to survive but said this should not be taken for granted.
Equalities Minister Jo Swinson gave details for the first time of how she handled claims that Lord Rennard had behaved inappropriately.
She told conference “a number of women” had confided in her about alleged incidents several years ago and their “shared objective” had been to make sure the alleged behaviour stopped in future. She said she did not “name names” when speaking to people in the leader’s office about the claims.
Danny Alexander, then Mr Clegg’s chief of staff, subsequently had a face-to-face meeting with Lord Rennard, who denied the allegations and continues to deny them.
Mrs Swinson said she had told the women what action had been taken and encouraged them to come forward again if there were further issues. “I have not heard any account of inappropriate behaviour subsequent to the action that I and Danny took,” she added.