“You’ve got an awesome, kick-arse woman like Martha Lane Fox in there. And then you’ve got some of the oldest, most experienced politicians who you frankly last saw on Spitting Image – and actually thought were dead.”
Olly Grender’s views on the House of Lords are nothing if not candid. Nearly a year after she was ennobled, no one could claim that she’s been seduced by the traditions of the red benches.
“Everyone describes it as a very polite place and individuals within it are polite. But then if you stand up as I did and speak out against Betty Boothroyd’s ‘constitutional outrage’ of Tina Stowell being ‘in attendance’ at Cabinet, then it’s a lot of people baying, basically. You just have to be quite thick skinned,” she says.
“What I would say is that it desperately needs to be elected and it should be elected. You almost want to say ‘right, so we are really angry that everyone around the Cabinet table is now elected, is that what we are angry about? We are angry because an unelected body doesn’t have representation there?’ Sometimes I sit in the chamber and when I see it is described by many others as [Parliament] ‘at its best’, I struggle to understand that phrase.”
In a political career spent both behind the scenes and on the media, Baroness Grender of Kingston-Upon-Thames has never been afraid of speaking her mind. And as the General Election looms, her frank advice will certainly be heard loud and clear by the Lib Dems in coming months.
Reunited with Paddy Ashdown, her former boss and fellow Lords sceptic, Grender has been appointed ‘Political Co-ordinator and Director for Special Projects’ as her party gears up for one of the toughest electoral campaigns in its history. Ashdown and his loyal lieutenant want their army of volunteers to dig in deep in their current 56 seats, while taking the fight to other key targets.
Her multitasking will be stretched to the limit as she juggles her election post with her duties as a full-time working peer. But although her frustration with the Lords is palpable, she points out that the Upper House (which she prefers to call the ‘Second Chamber’) can effect change in a way the Commons simply can’t.
“Because you don’t have guillotines, because it’s a committee of the whole House, because anyone and everyone can get involved, because you can spend a good proportion of time on each amendment, that is where I think the Second Chamber is superb,” she says. “I’m conscious that our dirty laundry gets sent through to the Lords and then it gets starched and pressed and returned in a good condition.”
Typically, however, she has a caveat. “I think where it doesn’t necessarily work is with some of those set-piece grandstanding speeches. Sometimes my heart sinks a little bit if I’m hearing someone talking about how the economy worked in the 1970s – partly because I’m not entirely sure why we need a 30th speech on why the economy did or didn’t work in the 1970s.”
One area where she’s trying to drag the law, if not the Lords, into the 21st century is on the issue of ‘revenge porn’. Acting on a campaign launched by party member Hannah Thompson, she is currently trying to amend the Justice Bill to make the publication of private sexual images a criminal offence.
“It’s a generational issue, a lot of people won’t understand. But in the world of instant [communication] and smartphones, a lot of people own a lot of images. There are terrible websites like MyEx.com where people publish photos and say ‘this woman is a slag’ and stuff like that. It’s really, really nasty stuff. And it’s out there and it means that your friends, employer, can see. It’s a very brutal thing to happen.”
The Ministry of Justice is looking at the proposal. “There’s some debate about how you can ensure that it’s seen as a criminal act, and of course in the House of Lords for every peer there are 17 lawyers. So that will be much debated,” she says.
But the Baroness hopes the practice can become law in the next few months. “And it should, because it is on the increase. And it is a form of abuse. It’s not even that it’s a form of sexual abuse, it’s abuse against an individual.”
Grender is undoubtedly one of the strongest female voices the party has. But she’s more aware than most that the Lib Dems’ image among women has been undermined over the past year by the Lord Rennard controversy.
“Will it have a long-lasting impact? I’m not entirely sure. I think it’s been damaging and divisive in the party but I think we are where we are and we all need to just move on.”
As someone who’s known him for years, was she shocked by the claims? “Yes, I was shocked,” she says. She has not spoken to Rennard about the allegations and has said nothing publicly until now. Does she agree that the party could have done more to listen to the women who made the complaints?
“Oh yeah. Here’s the thing. I think that politics is going through a transition and I see it as a really good transition. And the silver lining out of what is no doubt a dark cloud for our party is that no woman will put up with any kind of behaviour that is inappropriate and will know that there are now all sorts of structures in place,” she says. The new anonymous helpline and support staff at Lib Dem HQ, plus heightened awareness, will all make a difference.
“I think that all institutions are going through turmoil and I’m glad they are. Is it fast enough for me? No. But am I delighted that it’s happening? Yes.”
Did she ever suffer from harassment herself? “Yes, from an MP. Who’s now dead,” she reveals. “When I first started working in Parliament in my early 20s, I would say that I had no idea I could complain that I was being sexually harassed by somebody who was a Member of Parliament. It just didn’t even occur to me. And I’m really pleased it now occurs to people.
“And by the way one of the most sexist places I thought at the time was the Press Gallery. I was a person going round as a young female and I’m delighted that the Press Gallery has changed as well.
“I wouldn’t say that it in any way held me back from anything that I wanted to do, and I would say that in contrast, for that one person there have been 200 people who have promoted and supported me in an amazing career that my party has given me. I’ve just had an extraordinary career.”
That career began when Grender was a young activist in Kingston, acting as agent, leafleter, occasional candidate. Christened Rosalind, she tried to say her own name but the word came out as ‘Olly’. “I’ve been called that ever since,” she explains.
“I could have changed it back, but it just stuck.” Ever the party hack, she also points out that when she first got involved in campaigning, a shorter forename came in useful. “It was less Letraset on leaflets for letterboxes. ‘Rosalind’ – too many letters!”
She didn’t go to university, opting instead to become a party researcher, and within a couple of years her talents were spotted by Paddy Ashdown. First as his speechwriter and then as his communications director, she fought alongside him in the trenches at the 1992 general election. After working for Shelter and public affairs firm LLM, she became the Lib Dem pundit of choice for Newsnight, alongside Tory Danny Finkelstein and Labour’s Peter Hyman. When Nick Clegg needed maternity cover for his deputy comms director in Downing Street, Grender was the natural choice.
“I would say that the work-life balance in No 10 was much, much harder than it is being a peer,” she says. “That was very, very demanding and I really didn’t see my little boy at all.”
In parenthood, as in her politics, she again defied the odds. After repeated miscarriages, she gave birth at the age of 43. “I had IVF and a 7% chance of success, according to the HFEA figures at the time,” she explains. “I did do everything I could to make sure it was successful, no alcohol for two years, no caffeine.” She adds swiftly: “Don’t worry, I’m back on the booze again.”
Grender’s main task from now to May is to help the Lib Dems fight their key seats against a combined onslaught of Labour, Tory and UKIP, all seizing on voter disillusionment with Clegg and his party.
With a string of experienced MPs standing down, from Alan Beith to Malcolm Bruce to Don Foster, is there a danger that the party is losing its crucial incumbency factor?
“There are some great models for MPs standing down as incumbents and someone coming in and taking over their seat,” she smiles. “Just one I’ll pluck out of the air randomly: Sheffield Hallam maybe?”
Yet the Lib Dems have again come under fire for the lack of women in their ranks. She says the ‘Leadership Programme’ has worked in getting women candidates selected in winnable seats, but stresses there’s a bigger problem. “The critical issue, and this is where we struggled in 2010, is getting them elected. And that requires money,” she says.
All-women shortlists have been avoided by the party, though “both Nick and Paddy are minded to have a look at this” after 2015, Grender says. But is she personally keen on the idea? “It’s not that I’m not keen, it’s that I would need to see the science and be persuaded that that’s the issue. I think the issue is money, money, money.
“It’s about proper decent funding of female candidates. Because to stand for Parliament you give up so much, it costs you personally, it costs you in terms of your kids, it costs you in terms of your salary. What Labour have always had is a way of bumping up salaries via trade union funding to help people overcome this.
“If you want loads of people to get involved in politics, somehow you have to find ways of ensuring that people on very low incomes feel engaged and involved and that is wider than us.”
In the absence of state funding of political parties, an idea which she says seems “almost impossible” given government austerity, wealthy donors are the only solution.
Lack of funding prevents diversity among not just MPs but peers, she adds. “What you don’t get is a hairdresser, what you don’t get is a bus driver. And why don’t you get those people? Because it’s unaffordable for most people to do this kind of thing unless you are relying on a partner.
“A salary in the Lords alone, a bank won’t accept it as payment for a mortgage. It varies dramatically because you clock on when you sit because it’s an allowance rather than a salary.”
Grender’s Lords allowance is supplemented by her major role working at Lib Dem HQ alongside Ashdown. And it’s clear she’s happy to be back in partnership with the former party leader.
“It’s a riot, we share an office. Paddy and I get along very, very well. You just have to read his acknowledgment to me in his latest book to understand. It’s so funny, it says something like ‘I am sure that Olly has not read a single word of this book however she was kind enough to put up with my rantings and ravings while writing it and lent me her red pen!’ I think almost every acknowledgement of almost every book Paddy has ever written, somewhere there’s a reference to me that makes me sound like a complete dweeb.”
Grender insists all of the trials and tribulations of Coalition have been worth it. “While we’ve had ups and downs in Government and we’ve had trust issues, we’ve stuck to our word on tax threshold, we have delivered something that has been dramatic in terms of the value you place on work rather than the value you place on personal wealth. I think that’s been transformative. As has the pupil premium. I sit on a board of governors and I know how significant it has been.”
But given the state of the polls at the moment, does she have a sense of cold realism about the months ahead, or a dogged optimism?
“There are very few Liberal Democrats I know who are pessimists,” she replies. “I think if you believe in Liberalism there’s such a streak of optimism about you anyway. And also we are real grafters. If you’ve grown up through the grassroots as I did in Kingston or Paddy did fighting again and again and finally winning the seat after so many goes, there’s just this sense of the fight in you. And we all have that.”
“People say ‘isn’t it grim at the moment?’ And you think ‘pfft!’ We are in government right now, in government. Ed Davey, Vince, Nick, these people get to pull the levers of power. I talk to Labour Members who have lost power and they feel it. What you want in politics is to deliver things.”
And as for the task ahead, Grender is irrepressible. “There’s the question ‘do you want to be involved in the next general election, isn’t it going to be a real rollercoaster?’ To which the answer is ‘oh, you bet! You bet!’ I think that reflects almost everyone I know in the party.”
GRENDER ON...LORDS ETIQUETTE
“It’s no more or less polite than the Commons. I think it’s overblown, this business about politeness.”
GRENDER ON....LORDS REBELLIONS
‘There are some times when you know you are going to enhance negotiations and other times when you are going to damage it.”
GRENDER ON ...BEING A PEER
”It’s easier being a peer than an MP. I’m still slightly surprised I'm in the House of Lords. I’m a kind of backroom person."
“A little confession, I normally watch
Newsnightwhile I’m washing up and filling the dishwasher, it’s an efficient use of time."
GRENDER ON...HER PARTY JOB
"I've worked in Government, and at HQ and in the Commons. So I’m the person who can cross all divides. That’s really important."