Sunday, April 08, 2018

Book review: Winning Here by Chris Rennard

This is my review of Chris Rennard's memoirs from the current issue of Liberator. Since you ask, you can subscribe to the magazine via its website.

Winning Here - My Campaigning Life: Memoirs Volume 1
Chris Rennard
Biteback Publishing, 2018, £25

When Phil Reilly left his job as the Liberal Democrats’ director of communications last November, he announced the decision in a post on Lib Dem Voice. Writing of the first leaders’ debate in the 2010 general election, he said:
That night changed the course of our party’s fortunes, but it also changed my life. I had joined the press office of a party that hadn’t been in national government for decades, with no expectation that would be changing any time soon. A few short years later I would be working in 10 Downing Street.
After it was published I saw tweets from national political journalists congratulating Phil on the article, which suggests that his may become the official version of Lib Dem history.

The truth, however, is rather different. Cleggmania lasted only a few days and the party lost five seats at the election. We did end up in government, not because of the peculiar brilliance of Clegg or Reilly, but because the election produced a hung parliament, an outcome that will always be a fluke result.

A more accurate account of Liberal Democrat history was given in an earlier Lib Dem Voice post by Nigel Lindsay:
Liberal Democrats were arguably more effective as a party of government before Nick Clegg became leader. [In] the decade from 2000 to 2010, Liberal Democrats were coalition partners in the governments of both Scotland and Wales.  The achievements of Liberal Democrat Ministers in those governments were far-reaching and radical …. Liberal Democrats also controlled major local authorities in most parts of Britain during those years.
Chris Rennard’s ‘Winning Here’, which is billed as volume 1 of his memoirs, tells the story of how he helped the Liberal Party and then the Liberal Democrats reached this position of comparative strength, ending with the defenestration of Charles Kennedy and then Willie Rennie’s victory in the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election in February 2006.

This has the effect of ending the story before the emergence of the allegations of sexual harassment against him that have sometimes threatened to split the party along a generational divide. Chris does mention them in his introduction, but a full discussion will presumably have to wait until the appearance of the slightly improbable volume 2.

Chris’s father, a veteran of the First World War who lost a leg on the Western Front, was 71 when Chris was born. He was to die three years later, leaving Chris’s mother with three children and a complicated financial situation. The help she received in gaining a widow’s pension had historic consequences for the Liberal Party and Liberal Democrats.

One day Cyril Carr, the leading figure in Liverpool Liberals, called at the Rennards’ house, listened to their problems and made the call that secured the pension from their own phone. So Chris joined the Liberals.

Carr was one of the pioneers of community politics in the party and Chis became his protégé. This was an era when the party twice ran the city council (1974-6 and 1978-0) and contained nationally important figures like David Alton and Trevor Jones, but Chris was to become the leading Liberal agent in the city. Alton was to win the Edge Hill constituency, which was wonderfully compact for campaigners but already identified as for the chop by the Boundary Commissioners, at a by-election in 1979.

After the 1984 Liverpool council elections, which Chris suggests were swung by personation for the Militant-led Labour Party, he left the city to become the Liberal Party’s regional agent for the East Midland, and this is what he found:
The East Midlands Regional Party was considered to be one of the most viable in England because it owned a (near-derelict) house in Loughborough. The house did not even had a functioning loo and visitors had to rely on the facilities at the nearby railway station. This was the regional office and home for the administrative secretary, a man called Maurice Bennett, who also hailed from Liverpool. 
Maurice made sure that the Regional Executive … Regional Finance and General Purposes Subcommittee and Regional Council all met regularly and he tried to raise funds to cover his modest salary and the costs of the house by selling a weird assortment of pens, key fobs and party memorabilia, as well as organising draws and sponsored walks. 
The operation required the limited number of constituency associations to pay into the regional party £200 per year, unless they could plead great poverty. For this fee, they appeared only to have the benefit of being able to buy the key fobs and to send representatives to regional party meetings.
It was at this house, which was in Burder Street, Loughborough, that I first met Chris. We talked upstairs among stacked boxes of leaflets that must have challenged the joists while Maurice Bennett watched the racing on television downstairs.

Chris had an enormous influence on the party in the region. He brought community campaigning techniques from Liverpool that enabled Rob Renold to win Crown Hills, an inner Leicester ward on the county council with a largely Muslim population in 1985. He also put together a team of activists, based at a Liberal safe house in Kimberley Road, Leicester, who helped across the region. They ran the committee room at an important Harborough by-election, leaving us local activists free to knock up all day.

For some readers, the book will be too much of a catalogue of long-forgotten by-elections, but for me, at least in these years, it is riveting because I remember them all. I drove down with Chris to the Brecon and Radnor by-election in 1985 and was on the front line there in Ystradgynlais.

‘Winning Here’ sweeps on through the Alliance years, giving an inside view of the seat negotiations between the Liberal Party and the SDP and showing how poorly the two Davids worked together. It was not just a lack of personal chemistry, but a lack of organisation: when they arrived for a joint appearance they had never discussed who would say that.

Then we come to the period after the two parties merged. This is chiefly remembered as an era in which we argued over the party’s name – at one time we were going to be “the Democrats” – but Chris reveals how precarious the financial position was, with the party reliant for its continued existence at one point upon a major donor who insisted upon keeping his identity a secret.

The drama that dominates the latter part of the book is the fall of Charles Kennedy. It had been rumoured for years that Charles had a serious drink problem, but whenever you asked an insider you were told that, yes, Charles used to have a problem, but he has sorted himself out. Sadly he never did.

Chris reveals more instances of cancelled meetings and campaign trips than I remember reading about before and pays tribute to the people like Tim Razzall who kept Charles going for as long as he did. He also gives Donnachadh McCarthy his due as the man who pushed the Lib Dems into opposing the war in Iraq.

I suppose it was the lifestyle of politics that did for poor Charles, and Chris himself did not find it healthy either. Living in what was in effect a permanent by-election campaign for 30 years left him with diabetes and depression when he stood down as the Lib Dems’ chief executive in 2009.

In recent years, in part perhaps because of the allegations against Chris, it has been fashionable to decry ‘Rennardism’. Yet this style of politics did not come just from him and Liverpool: it was originated independently across the country by forgotten figures like Wallace Lawler in Birmingham and Stanley Rundle in Kew. It was solidified into a technique for winning seats by the Association for Liberal Councillors in the late 1970s, and Chris was the strongest influence on its development in the years after that.

And, though it is true that the ruthless targeting and playing up of local grievances can grate, it has never been clear what people propose putting in place of Rennardism. Nick Clegg’s charisma, which was based on a single attractive television performance, did not last a week as the centrepiece of our campaign.

When the history of the Liberal Democrats comes to be written, Chris will have a central place in it and this book, which already feels like a monument to a forgotten era, will be a valuable source. It’s just that you fear the historians may decide they have more important things to do.

No comments: