The canard of Rennard

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Jemima Puddleduck and Mr Fox(sorry – picture simply too good to resist)

What is probably the most important article to appear in Lib Dem News for years was published in last week’s issue. Written by the party’s Chief Executive Chris Rennard, and entitled “Going Beyond Rennard”, the article concerns a debate which has apparently been going round “some of our MPs” about future party strategy and whether the one which has been championed by Chris for the best part of two decades has run out of steam.

What follows is a history lesson in which Chris explains the situation in the 80s when the party establishment didn’t believe in targeting, the subsequent dismal result of 1983 from which “we almost never recovered” and the renaissance led by him in the 90s starting with the 1990 Eastbourne by-election and culminating in the breakthrough success in 1997 when we got a record 46 MPs elected.

The reason for our success? Strict targeting and pushing issues that matter to people. In 1997, lest we forget, we fought the election on CHEESE (Crime, Health, Education, Economy, Sleaze and the Environment).

Chris concludes with the following two paragraphs:

“So what might ‘going beyond Rennard’ mean? A few people might say abandoning what we have learned in our time as Liberal Democrats. But I think that the consensus is based on building on it. If we could make our held seats more secure and more self-sufficient, we can invest in further gains. If we can raise substantially more funds, we can compete in many more areas and many more ways.

“But above all, we have to inspire the country with our vision and recognise that our message must be explained in terms of the tangible benefits of our policies to the people whose votes we seek.”

Why is this article significant? Two main reasons. First of all, this is the first time I for one have heard that there is widespread discussion within the parliamentary party about “going beyond Rennard”. This isn’t like the time when Chris responded (pdf) to an article I wrote (pdf) in Liberator last year. For Chris to write this article in the party newspaper is extraordinary because it suggests that he is feeling somewhat under threat. Whether that threat is real or imaginary remains to be seen. Either way, he feels the need to get his rebuttal in first.

The second significant point is that, if it is true that there are a few people in the party who believe in “abandoning what we have learned,” I’ve yet to meet them. If you ever did meet one, check their sleeves – my bet is they are made of straw.

I write this as someone who has regularly been accused by Chris as one of these flat earthers. Throughout my time on the party’s federal executive and subsequently finance and administration committee, I was constantly informed that I had an agenda to abandon the party’s target seat strategy.

It isn’t something I’ve personally ever advocated. What I have argued, and continue to argue, is that we need to build our capacity as an organisation, that training should be aimed at a much wider circle than it currently is, that certain organisations and projects within the party (the three I’ve most often championed at various times are LDYS, CGB and a more ambitious recruitment strategy) are worth investing in because the party gets more out of them than it puts in, and that ultimately you need to spend to gain. There is a danger in co-ordinating the parties operations as centrally as we do; successful businesses tend to have much less hierarchical models and we need to learn to embrace a more entrepreneurial, “can do” culture that this model oppresses. And yes, it is worth spending a bit less on our target seat operation now* if it increases our capacity in the longer term.

I’ve spelt this out to Chris in meetings until I was blue in the face, and each time been informed that I wanted to abandon targeting. I suspect the unnamed MPs this article is aimed at are in the same boat. What this article proves to me beyond all reasonable doubt is that Chris is still fighting the battles of the 1980s at a time when the rest of us have moved on. And that is a real problem for a party that needs to adapt to an ever changing political environment.

Chris’ genius for campaigning is unsurpassed. More than any other single individual he can rightly claim the credit for our renaissance in the 90s and beyond. He has been the true brains and in many ways the real leader of the party. But he is a tactician, not a strategist. And when someone has been in the position he has been for as long as he has been, there is always a danger of going stale.

If I was looking for signs that Chris is the right Chief Executive for the next phase in the party’s development, this article would not be where I would start.

* by which I have only ever discussed figures south of £100,000 and have always been keen to discuss ways in which that money could come from increased fundraising, eg. specific donor packages where half the money would go to the party and half to an associate organisation, thus locking AOs into a scheme that benefits both them and the target seat fund.

10 thoughts on “The canard of Rennard

  1. Yea, we need to work out a way that the national party will win the votes of disillusioned working-class Labour voters which we get at local-level, but who desert us when G/Es come round. I cite Durham City as a classic example. Maybe we should do what UKIP or the Tories have done, and bring in someone from abroad with a fresh perspective on things.

  2. Have to say I agree.

    Surprised to hear you write in such surprised terms about Rennard’s sense of vulnerability, which to my mind has been the case for some time now.

    I think he felt quite vulnerable under Ming, and I dont think he is anticipating to feel much safer under either Huhne or Clegg.

    The great problem is that anyone that questions even slightly the orthodoxy (as it appears you have done) is considerd a heretic and simply “anti” targeting. As you say, Chris deserves great credit, but any suggestions that deviate from his tactics are not encouraged, frankly.

    My own experience is that the “pavements not policy” attitude towards campaigning can hurt us in general election campaigns.

    It shouldn’t some as a total surprise that people are voting for policies in general elections, and it is not unreasonable that if they are to vote Liberal Democrat they ask for something more than a shopping list of policies and some trite promses to “work harder than the last guy.”

    Equally, too many local candidates are not able to describe what the party stands for in any meaningful way. Some fail to distinguish us from the Labour party.

    Some in Cowley Street see policy, or even a liberal philosphy, as a hurdle to being elected – and therefore something to be kept quiet. Anyone expousing controversial liberal views is told to keep their opinions to themselves:

    “Don’t say anything Liberal for gods sake, I’m doing a FOCUS on dog shit and a new Tesco.”

  3. Sensible points James. It isn’t logical to assume that the techniques that have been successful for the party over the last 15 years will be appropriate for the next 15. However it is equally silly to say that everything done over those years is wrong.

    The point is to take and reapply the lessons learnt from those previous elections. Which is what Chris has done in taking the lessons learnt from Liverpool in the 70s and Leicester in the 80s.

    In 1992 or 97 we ran a campaign based around the number of people who would vote for use if they thought we could win. At the time we were on about 14-15% in the polls but in answer to that question something like 60% of people said they would vote for us.

    To an extent the “Rennard way” of excessive targeting (and I think that is an over simplification) was a way of making people in a particular area believe we could we so we got that 60%.

    Interestingly in 2005 a similar poll was done. Whilst we were polling in the low-mid 20s nationally the answer to the question “who would you vote for if you thought we could win” was markedly lower than the previous figure. It may be the case that the better we poll the less the premium we get when people think we can win.

  4. i wrote an article making exactly these points for LDN a couple of years ago. Unsurprisingly, it was rejected out of hand, but glad to see more and more people are now thinking that progress depends on more than having a photo taken of you frowning and pointing to something bad.

  5. This is a necessary critique to analyse and take on board if we are ever to get over the next hurdle and become a true potential party of government.

    To look at the practise of targeting from the other side, if the tactic became hyper-succesful and we were able to maximise our ability to return members to parliament by minimising our broader national appeal to areas where we fail to campaign significantly (or at all), then I would see that as a failure of our liberal principles to be put into practice.

    Similarly, we do need to address perceptions of being insubstantial by going beyond the comfort zone of our specialisms: we don’t just need to do or to be seen to do the background work, we need to reestablish our ability to connect the two in front of a wider audience so that we can finally start to attract the wider voter base that we claim our appeal is tailored towards.

    We can’t stay everybodies favorite second-best forever – we shouldn’t want to, nor will we.

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