Review: 'Winning Here - My Campaigning Life' by Lord Rennard

Posted On: 
8th June 2018

Lord McNally find’s Chris Rennard’s book an insightful description of life in the engine room of politics

Sarah Teather, winner of the Brent East by-election in 2003 with Simon Hughes and former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy
Credit: 
PA

It is often said that the only people who read a party General Election Manifesto are from the opposing parties, looking for material with which to attack the other side.

By the same token this memoir of Chris Rennard’s 30 years of political campaigning for the Liberal Party and then the Liberal Democrats will be required reading for organisers in both the Labour and Conservative Parties. Skills which were first honed in the rough politics of 1970s and 80s Liverpool, struck terror in to both Government and Opposition in the 20 years he was first Director of Campaigns and Elections and then Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats between 1989 and 2009 as the party won a string of high profile Parliamentary by-elections and increased its number of MPs in successive General Elections.

Like many memoirs, it is the early years and influences which prove the most revealing in understanding what made and motivated the author. Chris was born in 1960, when his father, who had been a dentist in the Old Swan area of Liverpool, was 71. Two years later his Father was dead and his Mother died in 1986 at the age of 54, when Chris was only sixteen.

A complicated family back-story is told without rancour or self-pity. It explains how Chris found himself, at the age of 17 with little or no financial or family support. It is clear that it was the Liverpool Liberal Party who provided – at this critical time in his life – the support, the friendship, the motivation and, ultimately his life partner – his wife Ann – to whom the book is dedicated.

Although this is very clearly an account of one man’s war, it also shines a light on the nitty gritty of the workings of our democracy. As he himself writes in his introduction, “The overwhelming majority of people in any party do so for decent and honourable reasons.” In telling his own story he gives centre stage to the poor bloody infantry of politics – the door knockers, the envelop stuffers, the leaflet deliverers who make our politics work.

He was active from his mid-teens in the hard school of Liverpool politics in the 70s and 80s, working with people like Cyril Carr, Sir Trevor Jones, David Alton and Mike Storey. There they were going toe to toe with Labour’s Militant Tendency. This prepared him well for national responsibilities in the newly formed Liberal Democrats in 1989.

Over the next 20 years the Liberal Democrats, and successive party leaders, benefited from the Rennard formula of focus, analyse, research and engage, in fighting both national and by-elections. This involved using limited resources in targeted seats so that the Liberal Democrats were able to match – and often out-campaign – both Labour and the Conservatives in spite of their vastly superior financial resources. Winning Here is sub-titled Memoirs Volume One and restricts itself to the period when Chris Rennard developed the skills which made him one of the most feared and respected of political tacticians. His is a graphic description of life in the engine room of politics and a timely reminder that the triumph of ideals must be organised.

Lord McNally is a Lib Dem peer