The trouble with “Rennardism” (clue: it isn’t the leaflets)

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I find myself in danger of ending up on the wrong side of an important debate. I’ve written before about how Chris Rennard’s departure as Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats is a chance for the party to rethink how it campaigns and last week speculated whether our heavy dependence on “ground” campaigning makes it harder for us to find a more diverse selection of candidates. I hope however people don’t think that I agree with the more crass analyses out there suggesting that the party’s problem is that it delivers leaflets.

Irfan Ahmed suggests we can just switch to emails and achieve the same thing for less. Charlotte Gore asserts that “the most attractive candidate to the electorate nearly always wins irrespective of resources.” Stuart Sharpe seeks to prove this with graphs. But I have to say that when it comes to winning tactics, I’d much rather have Costigan Quist, Stephen Tall and especially Neil Fawcett running my campaign.

Regarding Stuart Sharpe’s “proof,” one is compelled to ask: where is your control group? Of course there isn’t one, nor is there likely to be one since no party would risk the political cost of sitting out a by-election just to satisfy this little theory. There are several factors at play in how a political party does in an election. The number of leaflets delivered is just one of them. But to assume that all you need to do is look at a) where the parties where doing according to public opinion, b) how many leaflets each party delivered and c) the result and extrapolate the marginal effectiveness of delivering a leaflet is simply laughable.

To quote a cliche, Coca-Cola spends literally billions on advertising each year yet doesn’t noticeably increase its market share. Is that billions of dollars wasted? No, it is the price they pay to retain their current market share. In Norwich North, the Lib Dems had several factors pointing against them: the Tories were in a strong second place locally and doing extremely well against Labour in national opinion polls; anti-politics feeling is at an all time high yet and the beneficiaries of that were always going to be predominantly UKIP and the Greens; the Lib Dems’ base in the city was concentrated in the south and thus all local resources up until that point (with the exception of the Broadlands bits) had been concentrated elsewhere; both locally and nationally, the party is established and no longer a repository of protest votes. Despite all that, I can honestly say the we did remarkably well. There was no anti-Labour squeeze to speak of and the Lib Dem vote held up remarkably well despite all those Tory squeeze leaflets.

Now, that doesn’t mean I’m completely uncritical. I remain of the opinion that branding Rupert Read an “extremist” was counter-productive as well as unethical, despite the fact that the more I read about the man the less I like. I do question whether the result was really worth what it cost to achieve it (notwithstanding Neil’s sound points about training and development); the main reason the party invested as much as it did in the campaign was that Broadlands and Norwich South are much stronger prospects and a bad result would have harmed the momentum in both of those seats. This preoccupation with the Greens, too, seemed to be more about their comparative strength in Norwich South: if they had leapfrogged us in the North it would have been a story that Read and his comrades could have used to split the vote in the South and keep Charles Clarke in power. Now they have a bad process story of their own to contend with. Whether that local advantage was worth the substantial national investment is a moot point but one which, frankly, I’m not in a terribly strong position to draw any real conclusion about.

By contrast, the idea that we won Leicester South, Brent East, Romsey, Dunfermline and Fife West and all those other past victories (never mind all those other close second places) due to the relative merits of our respective candidates is, with no insult whatsoever intended to the candidates themselves, completely laughable. They weren’t won by leaflets alone either, but the leafleting was a sine qua non.

No. If you really believe that the problem with “Rennardism” is rooted in our on the ground tactics, you are profoundly missing the point. Far from it, in my view the problem is that this form of campaigning is too successful and has become an end in itself. The problem is that the party has become far too comfortable in making these little gains here and there and more or less abandoned anything like a strategic vision – for either the party or the country – altogether.

There’s plenty of “vision” in the party’s pre-manifesto, published this week, but the launch of this was an interesting case in point. Just like last year’s Make It Happen, the launch was not terribly well handled, with Nick Clegg making some ill-advised comments and local parties and candidates left ill-prepared to deal with any enquiries about the new initiative. As I said earlier in the week, I strongly suspect that the two are inter-related: if someone was spending time working out how local candidates were supposed to be presenting new initiatives like this, they might come to different conclusions about how they are presented nationally.

One of the reasons I suspect the party centrally no longer provides pre-release briefings of major launches like this to candidates is the effective merger of the parliamentary party’s press operation and the federal party’s. Since then, however much better our press work has been (and generally I think it has been), it has been running to serve the front bench agenda and not really focusing on the wider party’s needs at all. During the leadership election, I remember hearing Clegg talk a lot about the need to invest more in a regional media strategy. It hasn’t happened.

The party has become good at producing these professional looking single-issue websites like A Fresh Start for Britain but it isn’t clear what campaign objectives they are supposed to achieve. Where’s the sign up box? Why no interactivity? Why no tools to make it easy for people to disseminate it via social bookmarking, twitter or even email? Why did the PDF version take days to appear and then only in a print-ready 5mb format? The whole thing, along with Take Back Power, screams afterthought and sourcing out.

My time on the party’s Federal Executive was mostly spent fighting trench warfare over things like getting decent funding for the Campaign for Gender Balance. I have no doubt that those battles in turn have delayed any progress we could have made to encourage more BAME candidates. Some things like the decline of Liberal (Democrat) Youth (and Students) (never mind the nonsense that happened earlier this year; the writing has been on the wall for years) required the party to take remedial measures, but those remedial measures never happened – mainly because they would have cost money. Yet I still maintain that all of these would have been sound investments for the party – both financially and in more intangible ways – in the longer term. What they would have cost however was the equivalent of a handful of target seats in the short term and thus were always resisted.

I have my concerns about how the party campaigns on the ground. I do think that the party is relatively complacent about unethical behaviour (although this is exception and not the norm) and I deplore the pettyfogging culture that it engenders. But in terms of what works, the last thing in the world you can criticise Lord Rennard on is his tactical nouse. Distrust anyone who tells you otherwise; they simply don’t get it. It is his strategy we need to move beyond.

UPDATE: Liberal England makes the very sage point that it is “Rennardism” wot won it for the Tories in Norwich North.

6 thoughts on “The trouble with “Rennardism” (clue: it isn’t the leaflets)

  1. Interesting analysis. I am, by the way, aware that you can’t simply multiply leaflets by opinion polls to measure effectiveness, which is why I titled that whole section ‘Shooting At Straw Men Is Fun!’

    Not being a Lib Dem, I can’t say what I would do going forward if I was – all I was trying to point out was that anybody sitting there telling you that leaflets are tried and tested and proven to work is plain crazy – there’s no evidence for their effectiveness, so far as I’ve seen.

    Also, as much as I’ve enjoyed Nich Starling’s election coverage, he most certainly HAS been treating the number of leaflets through his door as a barometer of the strength of each party’s campaign. Just have a look back through and you’ll see what I mean.

    Anyway, you’re probably right – Rennard has done a lot for your party, but as I saw Alix point out somewhere, when the other party’s ape your tactics they lose their effectiveness, so you almost definitely need to move on. And, as I see it, ‘online’ isn’t the answer either. It’s just another tool in the arsenal.

  2. Stu, what proof would satisfy you? You’ve looked at a single campaign where all the other factors were against us and where the Tories should have won just on a national swing. It is fine to be sceptical, but it isn’t enough. For leafleting to be “unproven” you need to explain what you think it is that caused the Lib Dems to win in Leicester South, Brent East et al, where the swing was massively above the national trend. Are you seriously suggesting it was just down to the innate charisma of Parmjit Dhanda and Sarah Teather?

    Like the evolution vs. intelligent design argument, this is an asymetrical debate. To correct that, we need to hear your hypothesis not merely your scepticism.

  3. Regarding Stuart Sharpe’s “proof,” one is compelled to ask: where is your control group? Of course there isn’t one, nor is there likely to be one since no party would risk the political cost of sitting out a by-election just to satisfy this little theory.

    Those of us with memories of the Liberal SDP Alliance can recall many examples of the SDP sitting out by-elections. Well, almost. They used the free postal delivery for a glossy personal manifesto and delivered another boring leaflet. They did all of the boring things that had got them elected as a Labour or Conservative MP, and promptly got hammered. From 1983, the only time the SDP won was when they adopted Liberal campaigning techniques.

  4. I agree with the strategic analysis in this piece. Leaflets work and continue to be an important tool. The point is that there is a limit to the number of seats you can leaflet to byelection intensity, which limits you as you grow to seek to win more and more seats. If the party seeks to move beyond winning about 10% of Commons seats, it needs to find new ways of campaigning – but building on the existing successful ones, not replacing them.

  5. Stu is correct to cite Alix’s argument that “when the other party’s ape your tactics they lose their effectiveness”.

    But I think it was unfortunate Alix muddied the picture of her original statement by a bad choice of words and left her conclusion open to interpretation. She used the word ‘change’, which is such an open-ended word that it confirms every ‘progressives’ pet prejudice.

    Where Stu says it’s now ‘time to move on’ this suggests that he intends to rip up the old rulebook and start again from scratch with a complete revolution in campaign tactics. Frankly I don’t believe this is what anybody truly means. And this divergence of meaning is IMO what caused the kurfuffle.

    Instead, perhaps a better word would have been ‘adapt’ or ‘reform’, which suggests we won’t ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ (how many times will that cliche be repeated!) and will ‘learn the lessons’ etc etc.

    It seems to me that those on either side of this debate are the fired-up young bucks raring to go and the hardened campaigners who advise a touch of caution over all-out haste.

    It’s important that we don’t allow ourselves to become too polarised over things like this because that would result in entrenching divisions on more strategic long-term issues such as suggested in James’ post. If distrust is allowed to grow between the leadershiip and the federal party then it will paralyse any attempts to make the positive changes in the areas (such as highlighted).

    For the purposes of mass consumption it seems that the general campaign tactics has been condensed into the meassage ‘deliver leaflets’, and it seems that any of the caveats about quality and quantity are beginning to become obscured by the mists of repitition down the years. This is natural problem for any organisation as it passes information on from one generation to the next and grows, but it is not one that is uinsurmountable.

    We all understand the reasoning and we are all in general agreement, but in order to ensure everyone is pulling together in the same direction we need to remember that both the bredth and the depth of our efforts contribute to our successes.

    BTW, can we get rid of this ‘rennardism’ tag and give it back it’s older ‘grimondism’ tag. Let’s not forget the latter was built on an adapted version of the former, or that the LibDem reputation for by-election success is based on the mother of them all – the Liberal success at Orpington.

  6. @Jeremy Hargreaves
    Twenty odd years ago, a Communist, John Peck was elected to Nottingham City Council. He effectively held the balance of power between Labour and Conservatives because there were no Liberal councillors at that time. He also won a multi-member ward whilst standing as the sole Communist candidate, which is arithmetically difficult.

    So what convinced 2,000+ people to vote for him? Well, he didn’t have the resources to deliver a Focus leaflet every six weeks or three months. So he knocked on every door, every year until he had spoken to everyone who answered. And then he started again, whilst still being an active trade unionist and a leading Eurocommunist in the CPGB and managing the casework. It took 25 years of slog, but he won, just at the moment his party dissolved (literally).

    Liberal Democrat candidates probably don’t need to slog as much as John Peck did. Or they need to slog as much for fewer years. Or be smart and cultivate local journalists because they have interesting stories. But the background story from most LibDem MPs is that they inherited infertile ground and learned how to till it.

    The flood of leaflets at an election campaign isn’t new. Chris Rennard didn’t event it, nor Andrew Ellis before him. Dig out your old ALC campaigning booklets and review. To be effective, the flood of leaflets has to be about a candidate who interests voters and who is “useful”. The rules change slightly at by-elections, but useless candidates are rarely elected by leaflet campaigns.

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