'Clegg didn't want to take it forward … Rennard makes and breaks careers'

Nick Clegg On Pause Still

The Oxford University politics lecturer who led complaints of sexual harassment against Lord Rennard has said she spoke out because of fears for the next generation of female party activists.

Alison Smith, who alleges she was inappropriately touched and sexually harassed by the then Liberal Democrat chief executive after a dinner at his house in 2007, said anxiety that her students might experience the same thing combined with frustration at a lack of formal disciplinary action led to her blowing the whistle.

Smith has been teaching students all week at Lady Margaret Hall college in Oxford while the storm caused by her and others' allegations against Rennard has raged around Westminster.

"When my students, including some very young bright girls with great intelligence who deserve to go far, talked about doing political activism and volunteering at the Lib Dems I had a vision in front of my eyes of them trapped in a room with an old lord not able to leave," she said.

"It struck home when I started to put a face to the next generation of political activists. I was worried that if someone [like Rennard] has a compulsion they are likely to be back."

Smith has claimed Rennard sat down between her and another unnamed female activist and "started moving his hands down our backs and places where they had absolutely no business being". Rennard has denied the claims.

Smith's fears for the safety of young female activists emerged as the Women Liberal Democrats group wrote to Nick Clegg with concerns about the vigour of the party's investigations, saying their members have been "shocked and saddened" by the allegations against Rennard. The group said sympathetic women should be closely involved in the reviews.

It warned that together with its fellow party campaign group, the Campaign for Gender Balance, it would "closely follow the investigations to ensure that they are vigorous and sufficiently involve women in the party".

Only seven of the party's 56 MPs are female and five of them are in the most vulnerable seats, according to a study by the Fabian Society. The Women Liberal Democrats are also calling on Clegg to institute "a wider review of the experiences and role of women in the party, with recommendations to be brought to conference no later than spring 2014".

Speaking to the Guardian, Smith also raised fresh questions about the party leadership's handling of the scandal. She said that women who made sexual harassment complaints told the party hierarchy on more than one occasion that they would go public if no disciplinary action was taken against Rennard. She said that last month – before the surprise resignation of Chris Huhne that sparked today's Eastleigh byelection – she gave "senior figures" in the party up to three weeks' notice that Channel 4 was set to broadcast her testimony.

"They had a lot of time to get their ducks in a row," she said. "I told quite a few people and phoned around because I have friends in the party. I told them I had done this and they had two to three weeks to respond."

She added that journalists were putting pressure on her and other complainants to go public from 2008 onwards.

"We were trying to use that as leverage with the party [to act] and I talked to [then party president] Ros Scott about that," she said. "I said we knew who we would go to in the media if this wasn't resolved. I wanted it to be resolved through a formal process."

But she said that after the last few days of mounting pressure she now felt sorry for the Lib Dem leader and believes the "Get Clegg" campaign should be reined in.

"I feel a bit sorry for him," she said. "It feels like a case of musical chairs and he is the only one standing when the music stopped. So many people have questions to answer."

Smith made her complaint under the leadership of Menzies Campbell and she said Rennard also exerted extraordinary power over the Liberal Democrat leadership and that may have made it harder for them to tackle the issue.

"They need to examine the culture in which we were making these complaints, where Lord Rennard remained chief executive with his hands on the purse strings and he could be very influential in the candidates' selection and funding, so you have to appreciate the context in which he [Clegg] didn't want to take this forward," she said.

"We are starting to get closer to the truth on this. You have to realise, from even Clegg's point of view, how difficult people this powerful were to deal with."

Asked if that may have informed the limited way in which Clegg and his then chief of staff, Danny Alexander, handled the allegations against Rennard in 2008, she said: "He [Rennard] has been instrumental in making and breaking their careers so far."

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Robert Booth, for The Guardian on Wednesday 27th February 2013 19.58 Europe/London

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