THE Lib Dems have a problem with women. It is an uncomfortable fact for them as a party but, nevertheless, it is true.
The row that has climaxed this week over the fate of former Lib Dem chief executive Lord Rennard is in many ways the symptom of a party that has said the right thing about equal opportunities and practised the opposite. That was the damning conclusion of the report commissioned by Nick Clegg and drawn up by leading businesswoman Helena Morrissey in June last year after the Rennard allegations first became public.
While various investigations have said no case can be made against Lord Rennard, his alleged victims and many women within the party have found it hard to accept. There have even been allegations that the Lib Dem leadership actively tried to cover up the issue.
Clegg’s former special adviser, Bridget Harris, has resigned and accused him of “lacking moral leadership”; others may follow.
But this is only part of problem. There is a growing frustration over the way the party fails to give women an opportunity in politics.
The figures are stark. Only seven out of 57 Lib Dem MPs are women, the same number of male knights they have on the green benches. This means 12.2 per cent of the total are women for the Lib Dems compared to 16 per cent for the Tories and 31 per cent for Labour. Of those seven, only two are ministers – Lynne Featherstone, a junior minister for international development, and Jo Swinson, a junior business minister being covered by Jenny Willott while on maternity leave. Baroness Randerson is an unpaid junior minister in the Welsh Office. In 2000 she also had the distinction of being the first woman in 322 years from the Lib Dems and its predecessory parties - the Liberals and the Whigs - to be given ministerial office when she was made culture minister in the Welsh Assembly Government.
There are no Lib Dem women in the Cabinet, or even near to it.
All seven women Lib Dem MPs are in outright marginals, or at least vulnerable seats, ranging from Loreley Burt’s 175 majority in Solihull to Featherstone with 7,875 in Hornsey and Wood Green, the only one with a majority of more than 5,000. Burt is trying to become the party’s first woman deputy leader in an attempt to raise her profile, while Brent East MP Sarah Teather is quitting and has been replaced by a male candidate and Mid Dorset’s Annette Brooke will also step down. There is a strong possibility that there will be no female Liberal MPs after May 2015, although Christine Jardine is being mentioned as a possible candidate for Sir Malcolm Bruce’s seat.
If she defends her 2,184 majority in 2015 in East Dunbartonshire, then Swinson is being talked up behind the scenes as a future leader of the party.
As things stand, that might be the only way the Lib Dems can mend their tarnished reputation and claim to truly reach out to women.