It may have taken my 15 years, but I always get my man in the end. Back in 2003 I asked Chris Rennard to write a book about the art of political campaigning. If my memory is correct, he liked the idea but didn’t feel he could do it while still working actively for the LibDems. He’s now written the first volume of his memoirs covering his life up until 2006, and I published the book in January.
To understand the success of the Liberal Democrats in the period 1988-2006 you absolutely have to read this book. Rennard has an encyclopeadic memory for details of each and every by-election and doesn’t hold back in his assessment of all the various personalities involved in the LibDem politics of the period. His insights into the leaderships of Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy shed a lot of new light on the politics of the period. He is especially good on Kennedy, analysing in detail the trials and tribulations the party went through on deciding to oppose the Iraq war, and also the events which led to Kennedy’s fall from power. He also gives fresh insights into how he and the party handled the Mark Oaten and Simon Hughes media scandals.
Some of the best bits of the book concern the concept of LibDem pavement politics. Rennard may not have been the inventor of pavement politics, but he will forever be associated with its developement and implementation. His skill in developing strategies to win both local and national by-elections leaves the reader awestruck. When he was in charge of by-elections the LibDems would invariably win them. Nowadays they rarely do. There’s a reason for that. Rennard isn’t in charge any longer, and people who think they know better than him aren’t fit to lick his electoral boots.
Some LibDems who aren’t fans of Rennard may think he overclaims the successes he contributed to – or overplays his role in them, but they would be mistaken. I know from personal experience his ability to stick his finger into the electoral wind and see which way it is blowing. Back in the summer of 2003 I told him I was thinking of applying to stand against Norman Lamb in the 2005 election. Lamb had a majority of 483 at the time, and I thought I could easily overturn it. Rennard told me I should look elswhere, but I thought I knew better. He said: “Dont go for it, Norman will increase his majority to more than 10,000”. I laughed. I wasn’t laughing on election night when the majority was announced as 10,606. I’ve often wondered how different my life might have been had I taken Chris Rennard’s advice…
But the real beauty of this book is found in the first few chapters detailing Rennard’s childhood in Liverpool. I often skip reading about people’s childhoods in books of this nature, but that would be a great mistake in this case. I won’t give too much detail but suffice to say there wasn’t a lot of money around and following his mother’s untimely death Chris and his younger brother were left to their own devices. His ability to come through that and finish his schooling is something to behold, given the circumstances. Like a lot of people, Chris Rennard then found a new family in the Liberal Party. It embraced him, encouraged him, but it also used him, and then, when he became an inconvenience they spat him out.
Just an accusation of wrongdoing can render you a non person in the political world, whatever the truth turns out to be. A forty year history of sacrificing your personal life and your health counts for little when you become the centre of sexual harassment allegations. Five years on, everyone remembers the allegations, but I wonder how many people remember that both the party inquiry and the police inquiry found there was no evidence and therefore delivered a verdict of ‘no further action’.
I’ve had various people tell me I shouldn’t have published this book, given those allegations. I stand by the age-old principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. What a pity so many people in the so-called ‘liberal’ Democrats find that such a difficult concept. Chris Rennard has a fascinating story to tell, and he has every right to be heard. Those who think the LibDems have nothing to learn from him illustrate why they remain at 7% in the polls, have lost most of their MPs and have their lowest number of councillors for decades.