Chris Rennard: A Liberal Democrat who knows how to win elections

In recent years thoughtful Conservatives surveying their wretched political predicament sometimes wondered aloud where "their" Peter Mandelson was. As usual they were asking the wrong question. They should have been seeking "their" Chris Rennard. For while Rennard enjoys a rather lower profile than New Labour's sultan of spin, the Liberal Democrats' own election guru is a no less formidable operator. True, Rennard has not managed to take the Liberal Democrats to Downing Street with a landslide majority, but it is in large part to him that the party owes its revival, the latest evidence of which was its victory in Brent East.

The campaign was overseen by Rennard, as most of the party's efforts have been. Indeed, many of the famous by-election upsets of the past 25 years or so have had something to do with Rennard, or "reynard" as he is occasionally known in party circles, for his supposed fox-like cunning. Brent East was but the latest gift Rennard has handed to his bosses. The Tories, who came second in the 2001 general election, could and should have won the seat. That they did not is down to their own manifest failings, not the least of which is their feeble capacity to campaign. As Rennard has demonstrated many times, the skilful use of even the most limited resources can achieve remarkable results.

Rennard is the political anorak's political anorak. He met his wife Ann, when they were the Liberal agents in adjacent constituencies during the 1983 general election. When most people look back on their lives they pick out the usual kinds of landmarks: first day at school, first kiss, marriage, that sort of thing. For Rennard the landmarks read rather differently: Eastbourne, Ribble Valley, Kincardine and Deeside, Newbury, Christchurch, Eastleigh, Littleborough and Saddleworth, Winchester, Romsey and Brent East. Plus the party's parliamentary breakthrough in the 1997 general election, extended in 2001; more than 50 MPs, the largest parliamentary presence for the Liberals since the time of Lloyd George.

He is proud that he was brought up in the district of Liverpool where "community politics" was pioneered and the first ever "Liberal Focus" leaflets, a kind of local newsletter cum propaganda sheet, were delivered by activists. Rennard's father was a dentist who died when Chris was aged three. His mother brought the three boys up on her own and became disabled when he was nine, and died when he was aged 16.

Needless to say, Rennard soon became a teenage Focus deliverer, a first rung on the activist ladder. By that time the Liberal renaissance of the early 1970s was in full swing, and the Liberal Party took Liverpool City Council from Labour in 1973. Rennard attended Liverpool University, however. His thoughts were never far from the local political battle and he managed to find the time to work full time on the Liverpool Edgehill by-election of 1979, his first (although he had worked on local council by-elections prior to that). Then, as now, a safe Labour urban seat was lost to a very young Liberal candidate, an event which helped to hasten the demise a few weeks later of the Callaghan government. Mr Blair may survive a little longer.

Unlike even Peter Mandelson, say, who spent a time working in television before he became a full-time politician, Rennard's entire working life has been dedicated to perfecting the art of a successful election campaign. His techniques are loathed and feared by the other parties in equal measure.

Liberal Democrats call it community politics and rally to the slogan "where we work, we win". Their opponents call it dirty tricks and claim that "where they lie they win". "They say one thing in one part of the country or a constituency and another thing in another" is the charge, "targeting", the reply. "Dog muck and bus shelter campaigning"; responding to local issues, say the Liberal Democrats.

It is certainly true that the slogans "only the Liberal Democrats can beat Labour here" and "only the Liberal Democrats can beat the Tories here" are deployed in different parts of the country with little indication that any contradiction or question of principle is troubling the Liberal conscience. If the most recent local or European or general or parish council election results don't have the Liberal Democrats in second place, then a "local poll" or "canvass returns" will be produced to substantiate the idea that "it's a two-horse race", complete with exaggerated bar chart. Such appeals to tactical voting is routine; it's a "squeeze". "Personalised" election communications are sent to soft Tory and soft Labour voters with predictably different, tailored messages.

A small army of party workers will be found in the basement of the local campaign HQ handwriting names and addresses from the electoral register on to envelopes so that the party's propaganda looks less like junk mail. The Liberal Democrat candidate will always be referred to by name in the literature; the opponent only as "the Tory". In a rural seat the signs saying "Liberal Democrats winning here" planted along main roads will become mysteriously larger and more numerous as polling day approaches. Rennard is usually to be found bustling around the place, mobile clamped to his ear. He has just the very vaguest hint of camp in his convivial manner, something that makes him good company, and he is not beyond poking fun at the human frailties of the leaders he has served.

The Liberal Democrat is always "local" wherever they happen to hail from. Expectations are massaged according to tactical advantage. Thus it was that the newspapers last weekend were tipped off that the Liberal Democrats had a chance of winning Brent East, and the subsequent publicity may have had a helpful effect on the Lib Dem bandwagon. Many of the party's breakthroughs have been preceded by comments from Rennard that the party was running "neck and neck" with their rivals when a political earthquake was only days away. Rennard told Paddy Ashdown on the day of the Winchester by-election in 1997 that Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat, "might just squeak in"; his majority was 21,556. Yesterday Rennard and his team spent the day thanking the voters of Brent East, a thoughtful gesture. That is electioneering the Rennard way.

It is strange, given the damage the Tories have suffered over the years as a result of Rennard's activities, that, like the Bourbons, they have forgotten none of their many defeats and learned nothing from then. When Chris Patten was chairman of the Conservatives he plaintively asked friends, "How on earth can you win a by-election?" He lost his own seat, Bath, at the 1992 general election to the Lib Dem Don Foster.

While it is fanciful to think Brent East heralds the end of Blair, it has buoyed up Lib Dem hopes of seeing Simon Hughes defeat Ken Livingstone for the London mayoralty next year. By-elections can matter. Rennard points to Eastbourne in 1990, when the Conservatives lost one of their safest seats. It was proof that Margaret Thatcher had become an electoral liability. It also shored up the early leadership of Ashdown, struggling with single-figure poll ratings. Ashdown thought that it would be in poor taste even to contest the by-election because it had been caused by the murder by the IRA of Ian Gow. Rennard wrote to Ashdown:

"It will not be seen to be bold and courageous, it will make you a laughingstock in Walworth Road [Labour HQ], Downing Street and eventually in the press that you threw away this chance."

Eastbourne was won with a majority of 4,500 on 18 October 1990; Mrs Thatcher left Downing Street for the last time as Prime Minister on 22 November.

Similarly, Newbury in 1993 sealed the fate of John Major's chancellor Norman Lamont. In 2000 the Conservatives' loss of Romsey revealed that William Hague's "core vote" strategy really was doomed. Iain Duncan Smith would be well advised to find out precisely why his party failed so badly in Brent.

When the Liberal Democrats meet Labour things become truly vicious. In the world of the political anorak the 1995 Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election is recalled in the same way that fight fans remember the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman "rumble in the jungle" in 1974. The Lib Dem heavyweight Rennard went toe to toe with New Labour's middleweight Mandelson. It was nasty and personal. Mandelson coined the phrase "high on taxes, soft on drugs" to describe the Lib Dem candidate Chris Davies's progressive attitude to the legalisation of cannabis and the public finances.

The Libs won, but it was the start of a phase when, under Blair's leadership of his party, it was Labour rather than the liberal Democrats who began to enjoy stunning by-election successes. It was only through Rennard's clever and ruthless strategy of targeting key constituencies that the Liberal Democrats managed to more than double the number of seats they won at the 1997 general election (46 seats won) on their modest share of the vote, barely changed on the 1992 outcome (18 per cent).

That Labour landslide also made less likely Ashdown's dream of entering a coalition with Labour. The "project", as it was known, disquieted Rennard, who worried that such a move, without the promise of proportional representation, would split the party and undo much of the painstaking work he and others had put in. There is ample evidence in Ashdown's Diaries that he warned Ashdown not to do it. The project was finally laid to rest by Blair in the Commons last week when he told Charles Kennedy that "the day our foreign policy is run by the Liberal Democrats is the day this country really will be at risk". Blair may one day have to eat those words.

If Brent East signals anything it is that Blair cannot assume another landslide next time. With a much reduced majority he would have to come to some accommodation if the Liberal Democrats hold their own. If the party ever does get a sniff of power, it will know whom to thank: the anorak from Liverpool.

LIFE STORY

Born: Christopher John Rennard, 8 July 1960, second of three sons of Cecil and Jean Rennard, Liverpool.

Family: Married Ann McTegart, nursery school head teacher, 1989; no children.

Education: Liverpool Blue Coat School; Liverpool University (2:2 in politics and economics, 1982).

Career: Liberal agent, Liverpool, 1982-84; regional agent, East Midlands, 1984-88; Lib Dem election co-ordinator, 1988-89; Lib Dem Director of Campaigns and Elections since 1989; appointed party's chief executive, effective from 1 October 2003.

Literary career: Winning Local Elections (1989); The Campaign Manual (1995).

Honours: Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), 1989; Life peerage as Lord Rennard of Wavertree in the County of Merseyside, 1999.

Recreations: Cooking, wine, France (Who's Who).

He says: "Where we work, we win."

They say: "The beauty of Chris is that he gives his opinion as a professional; it is sincere, but never personal." - Lord Ashdown

"Beyond doubt the wiliest and most experienced campaign strategist in British politics." - David Walter, The Strange Rebirth of Liberal England

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