Sunday, July 26, 2009

Norwich North was a triumph for Rennardism

There has been a lot of debate in the Lib Dem blogosphere about the our performance in the Norwich North and whether it represents the end of the road for Rennardism. By Rennardism is meant our traditional way of fighting by-elections: delivering colossal quantities of leaflets, playing up local causes and grievances... you know the sort of thing.

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.

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Anonymous said...

But Rennardism is more than lots of different-looking leaflets, it's tied up with the whole negative thrust against opponents: Labour in Norwich North for "sacking our MP" and being a "Westminster insider", or the Tory for - horrors - working for an MP who (allegedly) was caught up in an expenses scandal and for then - surprise surprise - not
calling on her employer to resign!

All based on flimsy half-truth, blown up stupidly to make asinine attacks. It drags the whole politics of the seat into the mud. That is the essence of Rennardism.

The Tories seemed to eschew such personal negativity at Norwich so in that sense, no, not a win for Rennardism at all.

RIP 1978-2009, unlamented, unmissed.

dreamingspire said...

Anybody got back to you about A Fresh Start for Britain to ask for help?

Matt Wardman said...

Been reflecting on this while doing a podcast with an activist trying to rebuild community in an area of 3 streets/125 people.

When Community politics is "you are dependent on your Concillor because s/he is the only one who knows how the Council works and can make things happen", then there is a problem.

That's not community politics. That's Councillors reduced to the role of bureaucratic fix-it man.

How to fix *that*?

dreamingspire said...

And sometimes the Cllr can't fix it, not even if its wrong, not even if he/she is an Executive Member...

Frank Little said...

ISTR Hague setting in motion a programme of learning from Liberal Democrats when he was party leader. It seems that it has finally born fruit in this parliament.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

Anonymous: you cannot have looked at Tory literature in Norwich and believed this spin about them running a positive campaign. While they certainly said they were, the whole tack of presenting Chloe Smith as the heir to Gibson and an outsider from outside of the Westminster bubble when she was no such thing, reeked of anti-politics. As did the local card. As did this bogus 'pledge' she signed with Rupert Read which she went on to use to smear her opponents with for not signing.

I detected plenty of negativity in her campaign and many of the Lib Dem criticisms of her were valid. Full marks to her for presenting it in a more subtle way but let's not kid ourselves.

Matt W: absolutely. The sad thing is that some of the WORST aspects of Lib Dem tactics have rubbed off on our opponents while they obsess over trivia like the relative size of bar charts, etc.

Anonymous said...

Maybe we can't fight a Rennard by-election without Rennard. We have always been good on tactics, but with over 60 MPs we now want some strategy and that means a Narrative.
"The Country has had 30 years of Thatcherite Social (no such tning as Society) and Economic (loadsamoney) policies. Only the Liberal Democrats can point us in a new direction."