Chris Rennard’s “Winning Here” – the requiem for the battered Lib Dems or the handbook for another revival?

February 28th, 2018

A review of Chris Rennard’s newly published “Winning Here”

    “ Paddy’s personal ratings were shown to be very high in our poll, even at the outset of the by- election campaign. This helped to persuade him of the validity of the other poll findings.”

Thus Chris Renard then the LD director of campaigns and elections coaxed Paddy Ashdown into accepting his formula for winning the 1993 Newbury by-election. The humour and shrewdness about people’s motivation mark this first volume of his political memoirs (just published by Biteback): it never becomes a mere boastful catalogue of Rennard’s election trophies.

Lord Rennard has measured out his life in by-elections. This book revisits a varied series of by-elections from Liverpool Edge Hill in 1979 to Dunfermline in 2006. He had learned early on how much the U.K’s third party needs the boost from by-election success to improve its tally of seats in general elections. And, as the apostle of targeting seats for general elections, he in effect simulated by-elections in those seats which gave full scope for Lib Dem campaign techniques.

His first chapter “An Unusual Introduction to Politics in Liverpool” describes his immersion in the community politics developed by the Liverpool Liberal councillors, year-round leafleting, canvassing and campaigning. These continue to characterise the party’s approach to elections.

Without self-pity he writes about his loving but straitened upbringing. It was a Liberal Councillor who had helped Rennard’s disabled mother to get her widowed mothers’ allowance. Orphaned when nearly 17, Rennard then showed abnormal self-reliance in getting through sixth form and university. This he combined with a massive workload for the local Liberals. His heroic labours take on a Victorian resonance, an example of self-help straight out of Samuel Smiles.

When the Edge Hill by-election was called shortly before the 1979 General Election, the Liberals nationally stood at 5% in opinion polls, damaged by the Lib-Lab Pact and the impending trial of former party leader. Jeremy Thorpe, for conspiracy to murder. The Liverpool Liberals were in good campaigning shape with Rennard already a seasoned and trusted part of the machine.

The victory of David Alton at Edge Hill meant the saving of the then Liberal Party. They moved up in the polls and held eleven of their fourteen seats in the General Election that followed immediately: a lesson not lost on Rennard. During the Alliance years he became Alton’s agent and helped him win the new seat of Mossley Hill from third place. He then became the East Midlands organiser, in charge of the West Derbyshire by- election in 1986 when the Liberals failed to take the seat by 100 votes.

In 1990 by which time Rennard had become the LD Director of Campaigns and Elections the IRA murdered Ian Gow – CON M.P for Eastbourne. Paddy Ashdown was reluctant to put forward a candidate for the ensuing by-election since he did not wish the party to be seen to benefit from terrorism. This caused Rennard to send Ashdown an irate memo setting out reasons to stand:“.. It will not be seen to be bold and courageous to recommend not fighting- it will make you a laughing stock in Walworth Road, Downing Street and eventually in the quality press that you threw away this chance.”

The LD victory in the subsequent by-election made it clear that the LDs were back in business: “a safe seat had been lost to a party that Mrs Thatcher herself had recently branded as a ” dead parrot” Six weeks later she resigned as Prime Minister.”

Successes in Ribble Valley and Kincardine and Deeside followed, strengthening the LDs in the run-up to GE1992 but the hoped-for big increase in LD seats failed to materialise. Rennard argues that speculation about a hung parliament and proportional representation, which he himself had wanted to avoid, was promoted by Ashdown in the last days of the 1992 – and this deterred Conservative voters whom the Lib Dems had hoped to win over.

    Rennard’s attitude towards Ashdown rather resembled that of a kindly school master trying to make sure that a gifted pupil bored with the syllabus does himself justice in the exams.

This pattern repeats itself in Rennard’s account of the LD revival which began with the Newbury by-election in 1993 where Rennard shows himself to have been a sceptic about Ashdown’s preoccupation with Lib-Lab cooperation, believing that careless talk about coalition would cost votes. Based on his Liverpool experience the Rennard approach in any election campaign was to find out the issues on voters’ minds and to deal with those issues rather than go on about constitutional reform which polling suggested was only of interest to a minute fraction of voters,

Rennard’s strategy at GE1997 delivered 46 LD seats, the largest third party contingent since 1929 a number which had increased to 62 at GE2005. By then Charles Kennedy had become the Liberal Democrat leader and Rennard writes sensitively about the alcoholism which was to cost Kennedy the leadership. Ever practical, however he saw the Dunfermline by-election of 2006 as a means to give the party a boost after Kennedy’s downfall.

Throughout the book Rennard refers – never at great length – to his health problems of depression and diabetes-, problems not eased by his long irregular hours and it was these problems which caused him to step down as the Paty’s chief executive.

Certainly this book is generous to colleagues and friends, and suggests he is loyal and considerate in his personal dealings.

Steve Lawson