Book review: Winning Here
Chris Rennard’s first volume of memoirs recall a life spent campaigning, winning elections and rising up the ranks of the Lib Dems.
Any Liberal Democrat supporter or activist who wants to better understand the history of the party since its formation in 1988 should read Chris Rennard's first volume of memoirs published earlier this year. The period covers closely the leadership of both Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy, concluding as Ming Campbell is elected in 2006.
The story is a very personal one, following the life of someone who has been a political campaigner and party member since his school days in the 1970s. It recalls his rise through the ranks from local Liberal activist in Liverpool, subsequently becoming a member of party campaign staff out in the regions, hundreds of miles from the ivory towers of Westminster. Chris Rennard then secures role at party HQ once his election winning formulas start to really prove successful in parliamentary by-election after by-election, and in the end, he became director of campaigns and elections (1989 – 2003) and finally chief executive of the Liberal Democrats from 2003 - 2009.
Chris Rennard's mettle is tested at an incredibly early age, losing first his father when he was only three years old and then his mother when he was 16. He shuns the idea of applying to Oxford despite being on course for and then securing 3 As in his A Levels and instead takes a degree at Liverpool University. He also continues to campaign with the Liverpool Liberals, then building a successful election winning machine, taking the fight to Labour and later Militant, in one of its northern strongholds. The commitment to genuine community canvassing is tested in an anecdote he referred to in the book at 8.30pm one Saturday evening. Should the group call it a night and head to the nearest pub or carry on knocking on doors until 9pm? Needless to say, the coin toss went against them and the pub had to wait another half hour.
His campaigning nous, first acquired from former Liverpool City Council leader Sir Trevor Jones and councillor Cyril Carr, served him well ever since his first by-election campaign in Liverpool Edge Hill in 1979, just before the general election that swept Mrs Thatcher to power. The Liberals gained the seat from Labour by more than 8,000 votes, on a swing of over 30% and retained it and successor seats at the following four general elections. This campaign and the unexpected victory gave Chris the hunger to win and set him off on a career as a party campaigns officer, writing manuals for candidates and volunteers, writing election leaflets and supporting local parties to grow their memberships and to get local councillors and MPs elected.
The thrill of a parliamentary by-election and pulling off an unexpected win to rally the troops and bolster the party leader all come through these pages clearly. The feeling of excitement and anticipation will be known to anyone who has ever campaigned in one of these contests. They form the backbone to Chris Rennard's working life and the book follows them in precise detail from Eastbourne to Newbury, to Christchurch and later contests like Winchester, Romsey and Brent East. Thirteen victories in all, with Chris also assisting in earlier contests between 1979 and 1987.
But clearly a life spent in politics is not all glamorous election triumphs. Chris Rennard is open about the huge strain his role and the pressure of four successive general election campaigns put him under mentally and physically. His weight increases as a result of long working days, little rest and a poor diet. He regrets the fact that he and his wife Ann, who’s supported him since they first met in Liverpool in the 1980s, were not able to have children. This undoubtedly enabled him to focus even more time and energy on political campaigns and Ann’s career in education.
The book also offers a useful insight into the perils of party leadership, describing Paddy Ashdown’s ambition to work closely with Tony Blair’s Labour party whilst still maintaining an equal distance between both main parties. Clearly any opportunity to realign the left and work closely with Labour is lost after the landslide result of 1997, but frustratingly this seems not to dawn on Paddy Ashdown until much later.
Chris Rennard also clearly recalls the troubles Charles Kennedy faced during his tenure as leader battling alcoholism; how his closest aides closed ranks to protect him on so many occasions as well as the pressure and criticism he and the party faced for opposing the Iraq War. A certain campaign donation of £2.4 million by Michael Brown also features heavily, which undoubtedly enabled the party to pull off its best election result since the 1920s. 62 seats won at a general election has never been bettered by the party, not even in 2010 as Cleggmania reached its peak and the coalition government was formed.
The memoir concludes in 2006, with a further volume promised, perhaps covering the Liberal Democrat role in government from 2010 - 2015. Rennard does briefly reflect on personal allegations made against him in 2013, in the book’s introduction. Whilst he repeats that extensive investigations were undertaken by the Metropolitan Police and by Alistair Webster QC for the party, all investigations concluded that no further action should be taken; he remains an active party member and peer. Chris Rennard’s statement from 2014 said he expressed regret to anyone who felt any hurt, embarrassment or upset and assured them that this would never have been his intention.
As the party continues to recover from the 2015 electoral battering and steadily increase its number of members, councillors and MPs, the lessons of the 1980s and 90s contained in this story are useful to reflect on and learn from.
Sam Webber is a Liberal Democrat campaigner and has been a parliamentary candidate for the party at the last three general elections.