What the participants in that debate are missing is the fact that Norwich North was a triumph for Rennardism: it's just that it was not the Liberal Democrats who were using the technique.
First there was the quantity of paper delivered. On the day before polling Norfolk Blogger reported his estimate of how many pieces of literature the parties had delivered. Yes, the Liberal Democrats were leading, having put out 14 leaflets (with two of them being delivered by Freepost). But the Tories were only one leaflet behind (again with two going out by Freepost).
Then there was the content of the leaflets. Take a look at this polling day leaflet - again from the recently indispensable Norfolk Blogger...
Does it look familiar? I am sure I have delivered Liberal Democrat leaflets that are almost identical to this.
For years Liberals have talked of "community politics" as though it were a distinct ideology, but I wonder if we weren't kidding ourselves. Wasn't it just a set of techniques that any party can use?
Years ago I served on some cross-county committee with a Conservative councillor from Charnwood. In those days Charnwood Tories tended to be young, bright and hard-line Thatcherites. He told me that they all used the campaign guides from the Association of Liberal Councillors because they were the best.
And then there is localism. Political Betting has an informative posting and debate on the Liberal Democrats' recent performances in Westminster by-elections.
One comment from Ted is particularly to the point here:
One of the lessons the Conservatives took from Liberal/Lib Dem successes was to select early and get candidates to develop their constituency presence, supported by the noble Lord’s target seats financing. So Chloe had been campaigning already for 18 months.
Oddly though the LDs have a policy of re-selecting for by-elections (in itself appearing as judgement on their poor original choice) while also making a point of localism, always attacking the likely rival on residence, job or something that will make them appear “other”. In April Pond they selected a candidate with Norwich connections but who was new to the constituency and open to the very attacks that usually mark a Lib Dem campaign.
In Henley they selected Stephen Kearney, who had been very active as a Plymouth Lib Dem and kicked out a local woman candidate. In Crewe Elizabeth Shenton, a councillor ion Newcastle Under Lyme was chosen but yet the LDs attacked Timpson for living outside the constituency.
The standard playbook does seem exhausted now - the rivals have learnt the lessons and how to counter-attack, there are alternative vehicles for protest.So it is not that Rennardism was tried in Norwich and found wanting. It is more that the Tories implemented it more effectively than we did.
The truth is that the traditional Lib Dem by-election techniques are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for success. I have met candidates who believe that if you deliver enough leaflets and enough newspapers then you are bound to win a constituency. Yes, you do need to make that sort of effort, particularly as we are the third party nationally, but you also need a high profile in the press and in the community.
We also need some clear, distinctive and popular policies, which brings us back to the problems with A Fresh Start for Britain.