(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 Â£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.