Chris Rennard is not a name familiar with many outside the Westminster village. But he is probably the most formidable and feared political campaigner of the last 20 years. It was he who invented the concept of “pavement politics”. It was he who masterminded countless Liberal Democrat by-election victories. And it was he who warned me against standing in North Norfolk in 2003. If I had taken his advice, I might never have gone down to such a terrible defeat two years later! I caught up with him shortly after the local elections in May...
ID: It was an awful day for the Lib Dems at the recent elections. Was it ever going to be anything different?
CR: Some people in the Lib Dems were aware last May that these local elections in coalition with the Conservatives were going to be difficult. I’m not sure they realised quite how difficult. I certainly realised, as the election approached, that it was going to be very difficult for many people I’d worked with over many years.
Far from losing 1,000 seats, the Conservatives actually increased the number of councils they controlled and the number of councillors. That, in the south of England, must have been at the Lib Dems’ expense.
Certainly, the Conservatives didn’t lose in the big, Northern, urban areas because they’ve already lost everything they could possibly lose in recent years. We lost there to Labour. Yes, we were losing to the Conservatives in the south but not by and large, and not heavily where we had Lib Dem MPs. Our losses were much more modest where we had Lib Dem MPs.
There’s been a lot of talk of the Lib Dems being used as a human shield. Is there any truth in that?
I looked years ago at the pattern of coalitions in much of Western Europe. It was clear there was a general tendency in coalitions for the senior party to get credit for what was good and the junior partner to get the blame for what was bad. I spoke to several of our sister parties in Europe who had just this experience but were able to learn from it and not repeat their mistakes and demonstrate their independence and come back strongly thereafter.
What do you think about key Lib Dem spokesmen wearing their consciences on their sleeves? Simon Hughes has done it. Vince Cable has done it. Norman Lamb did it when he resigned but Nick Clegg wouldn’t accept it.
I’m not surprised Nick Clegg wouldn’t accept it because Norman is a good person and was a good health spokesman. We’ve seen people wearing their conscience on their sleeve in previous governments. In Lady Thatcher’s era they were called the ‘wets’ and they were dismissed one by one. In John Major’s era you had people with differences of opinion actually expressing them and, certainly, during 13 years of Labour government nobody thought the Blairites and the Brownites were always united. I’d actually say the coalition is more coherent in many ways than the Blairites and Brownites were for that period.
I think the Conservative Party would say you shouldn’t have a minority dictating to the majority. But that seems to be what some Liberal Democrats are seeking to do here.
The Conservatives, sometimes, think it’s unreasonable that a party that got 23 per cent of the vote should be telling a party that got 36 per cent of the vote what it thinks on a number of issues. We’ve had that frequently since the election with a number of Conservatives unhappy with the coalition. But what they should really be unhappy with is not securing a majority at the election – they only won 36 per cent of the vote, they only have 45 per cent of the seats in the Commons. Therefore, they have to recognise they’re in a minority.
Do you think Cameron has rediscovered his inner Conservative, with the AV referendum in particular? Without his intervention I’m not sure it would have gone quite the way it did. If pushed too far, he may say: ‘If you don’t like it, there’s the door.’ But there’s nowhere for the Lib Dems to go because they would be in a far worse situation.
I think David Cameron would be in a fairly disastrous position if his coalition strategy began to unfold. I do think his intervention in the AV referendum was hugely significant, not just him personally, but because he mobilised his parliamentary party. He mobilised Conservative donors and he mobilised the very pro-Conservative media.
Don’t you think that was a bit off?
It was only off if there was more of an understanding, which I wasn’t party to, of him not doing something like that. I don’t know what understandings were made or agreements given. But he has clearly, in all his time as leader and thinking about becoming leader, wanted to detoxify what was the ‘nasty party’ and make the Conservative Party a different brand.
Why did the Yes to AV campaign, which you were on the board of, not get its message across?
Yes, I was on the advisory council for Yes to Fairer Votes but I wasn’t involved in running the campaign. In terms of my analysis, it was always going to be very hard to win an AV referendum if the Conservative vote was solidly against it.
Most of the arguments against AV in fact were actually arguments against PR rather than AV. Of the Conservative commentators I listened to, only William Hague seemed to appreciate that the main arguments on electoral systems are between majoritarian systems and PR systems and that AV is actually not a proportional system.
You ask me why are they on the back foot. One is the Conservatives. Two, the Yes campaign was on the back foot because the Labour leadership is not well established at this point. The Labour Party was clearly divided and a lot of very recognisable figures in the Labour Party, including most MPs, were against it. And, thirdly, it wasn’t a good time for the Liberal Democrats to be arguing for change. It would have been a good time, say, 12 months ago. It turned out not to be this year.
Was there one thing you thought, if they’d done that differently, things might have turned out differently?
Well, I was asked for my advice and I did give it, and a number of things I suggested were taken on board. Of course, if you’d known years ago you were going to be at this point on this day, perhaps you could have tried to raise more money at an earlier point. Money was an important factor in the referendum campaign. It was always going to be difficult to overcome the rather bogus arguments about either cash or complexity. The No campaign had found that the most damning argument that could be made against AV was that it would cost £250m. This of course was a completely bogus argument. It was a ridiculous claim, and those people making it knew that.
I thought the argument that AV would make MPs work harder was the equivalent of the £250m. Because you and I both know most MPs do work bloody hard.
Well, obviously these things are tested in market research. Actually more MPs would have worked harder with AV because more would have felt under threat if their opponents had been able to combine against them. Let’s look at the classic example of where you had a discredited MP, Neil Hamilton, in 1997. The only way in which he lost his seat was because the Labour candidate had to withdraw, the Lib Dem candidate had to withdraw and then an independent Martin Bell had to stand for there to be any chance, in an otherwise safe Conservative seat, of the Tory candidate being defeated. You can argue this might apply in all seats.
More MPs would work harder if they actually had to appeal to second preferences and didn’t think, ‘Well, actually the opposition against me is so split that I can carry on without having to work quite so hard.’
Do you miss being in front line campaigning?
Sometimes the adrenalin surge you get at a great by-election victory or a great election breakthrough. But I don’t actually miss the 14-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week relentless pressure. I feel very much better in myself now. I feel a lot fitter than I did two years ago, and therefore that’s a very good thing for me. And actually on balance I really quite enjoy the fact that occasionally I can dip in a little bit and I can help, and I can advise and be strategic. And I do quite a few things – I quite enjoyed moments of punditry over Thursday/Friday [local election and AV results] in a very difficult situation for the Liberal Democrats. But then I can actually relax and take time out. The important principle is you help when asked. It’s important not to be a back-seat driver and try to interfere.
Bernard Jenkin said you could imagine a Lib Dem enclave within the Conservative Party at some point. It’s happened before, hasn’t it? Do you think that that’s at all possible or likely?
I think that’s just trouble-making by someone who is very anti-coalition. I don’t think in the 21st century things will go back to the way they were in the 1920s or 1930s.
Don’t you think this time it just feels a little bit different? There is a visceral hatred out there for some of the things that Liberal Democrats have done, particularly tuition fees.
I don’t accept the premise that there’s necessarily any demise. I’d even say from these local election results that many of our MPs are very popular, very strong individuals. I think it will be quite wrong to assume there will be a drop in the Lib Dems one year after the general election, when the next general election is, almost certainly in my view, four years away. Just think about the swings and roundabouts over the years. To assume one year on from a general election, what will happen in four years, is, as they would say, a mug’s game.
Do you regret the decapitation strategy in 2005?
I regret that some people called it such, because it made it sound personal, and made it sound like we were victimising people, which was certainly never my intention, never my style of politics. But it was true after 2001 that a number of prominent Conservatives happened to be in seats where the Liberal Democrats were not far behind. The prime aim of a targeting strategy is to try and win the seats where you can win. And clearly it was right in those circumstances to try and make an extra effort in those seats that we believed we could win.
Let’s talk about the art of political campaigning. You developed a reputation where your opponents greatly feared you, particularly in by-elections. How did you get into campaigning in the first place?
Well I grew up in what must be a strange part of the world, in Wavertree in Liverpool, and then a ward called Church ward. It happened to be the ward where the Focus newsletters issued by the Liberal party first began. I claim no credit for them because they began when I was two.
I met the local councillor, Cyril Carr, who was one of the original gurus of community politics. He, with his agent, had invented the Focus newsletter. I got involved because my father died when I was three.
My mother needed somebody who could help with a number of issues and the local Liberal councillor was very helpful. When my mother became severely disabled when I was nine, she needed more help on a number of issues, and the local Liberal councillor was always willing to help.
As a teenager, he felt I was sufficient enough in politics, if I’d like to come along and listen at the back of some meetings, which I did. I suppose it took off from there. I was struck by the values, the commitment and the passion of the people I got to know. People actually quite liked some of our candidates, many of our policies and our leaders. But I found that they didn’t vote for us because they didn’t think we could win.
If I could find ways in which we could persuade people that we could win, then I was on to something. I moved into my own flat – by then my mother had died. Because I was on my own in Liverpool, I stayed at my home university. I found myself heavily involved in running the local council elections, helping with the Edge Hill by-election in1979, then running campaigns for council by-elections, then running the local city elections. And then I was persuaded by [former Liberal MP] David Alton to be his agent when his constituency was redrawn by the Boundary Commission.
The expert at party headquarters who came to assess the seat said I was doing a fantastic job as a bright young agent, but it was simply impossible to win. But we won in 1983 with a 14 per cent swing against the Conservatives at the height of Mrs Thatcher’s popularity. It was a constituency with theoretically a 9,000 Conservative majority over Labour, and the Liberals 4,000 behind Labour. But we won.
By 1989, the party was at a very low ebb after the European elections. I became the party’s director of campaigns and elections, with the party at about three per cent in the national opinion polls in August 1989. It gave me the opportunity then to try it nationally, what I believed. I felt that the Liberal Democrat local government base was very important to our survival, and I produced most of our campaign in booklets advising our councillors and council candidates on how to campaign on the local issues. Eventually I got to a point where my methods were working. The party decided to back them and invest in them. I got into fundraising in a big way, and the rest is history.
You’ve got a reputation among your opponents for some quite negative campaigning tactics – the famous bar graphs and all the rest of it.
I wrote most of the campaigning booklets for the Liberal Party and then the Liberal Democrats in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Not one of them was ever quoted by any one of our opponents, no one in the media found a single sentence in anything I ever wrote, that would suggest anything that would be dishonest, misleading or get the party into trouble. The Liberal Party, and perhaps the SDP to a degree, in the mid-1980s had a bad reputation. What I did after 1989 was clean up much of that reputation.
How can Nick Clegg best handle the next few years? He’s been given constitutional reform which no one cares about. Would it not be better for him to have a constitutional job?
I agree constitutional reform is not a big issue for voters. I spent my decades working for the Lib Dems to encourage them not to talk about constitutional reform ad nauseum during the general election campaign. People aren’t as interested in the process issues as they are in the outcomes. Therefore, you could say Clegg should focus more on outcome issues than process issues. But I think there is also the danger for a deputy PM and leader of a party who takes on one major department that they are so absorbed with that one department that they don’t have a remit across the whole of government.
One of the difficulties in this coalition arrangement is that Clegg has to have an interest in every area of government, not just one. And that involves a great deal of time pressure for someone with a family life, who also has to do the work of a party leader, which is very demanding. Also, he has deputy PM commitments, such as visiting heads of state and parliamentary leaders who will often expect to see the deputy PM as well or they will feel snubbed. So it’s a very big job Nick has to do.
Where do you think the Lib Dems would be if Charles Kennedy hadn’t had his issues and had remained leader?
Well, perhaps it created a ‘what if?’. The party clearly did very well in 2001 and 2005. What was interesting is that Ed Miliband won the Labour Party leadership in 2010 running on a manifesto that was very similar to the Lib Dem manifesto of 2005.
Kennedy never would have gone into coalition would he?
I think that the mathematical imperative was such that it became inevitable, unless there was a really bad negotiation on the coalition terms. You must never rule in or rule out another group of people because of who they are. You have to focus on what you would do, not who you would do it with. Almost like a blind-folded interview.
But didn’t Clegg kind of do that with Brown?
I think he did. Brown wasn’t going to shift on things that needed to be done, and the Labour Party weren’t going to shift on things that needed to be done. If Brown had stayed, Brown would have carried on similar policies for quite a long time. If there was to be any arrangement with Labour, it became plain that Brown would have to go because he was not going to accept changes from thinking that his manifesto was what he wanted to.
It was also very plain that there were very large elements in the Labour Party – that were also very strong in the No to AV campaign – who weren’t willing to countenance any deal or arrangement with the Liberal Democrats, and certainly no major electoral reform. David Cameron, to his credit, was opposed to electoral reform but was willing to countenance the idea of a popular vote on the issue which was a clincher for the coalition deal in the end.
You have worked with five Liberal or Liberal Democrat leaders. Which leader surprised you when they were elected?
Actually I knew all of them before they were leader, so when they became leader there wasn’t anything hugely surprising to me. Ming [Campbell] was one perhaps never fully tested because he never fought a general election campaign. Perhaps Ming will always feel that it would have been better for him if had have fought a general election campaign. I thought there was going to be an election in 2007. Had there been one, I am personally convinced we would have done well. Had there been an election in 2007, David Cameron would be an ex-party leader.
I agree with you on that one. Funny how these things work out.
What book are you reading at the moment?
The Fatal Englishman by Sebastian Faulks
Martin Luther King
Food I have spent a long time cooking
South Downs Way
Best friend in politics?
Lord Storey [former Liverpool council leader]
Most embarrassing song on your iPod?
Climb Every Mountain from The Sound of Music
Last movie you saw?
The King’s Speech