Book review: Election mastermind who emerged from Liverpool’s political hotbed
Chris Rennard overcame being made homeless at 16 to become one of the most successful election strategists in the history of Liberal politics – a story chronicled in volume one of his memoirs. Tony McDonough reports
In US politics they love their sporting metaphors – with one of the favourites, I believe, being ‘inside baseball’ which refers to inside knowledge and getting to know ‘how the sausages are made’. Which, I guess, is also a metaphor.
When you read a political autobiography, inside baseball is precisely what you are looking for and, in the first volume of the memoirs of Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard that is pretty much what you get. The book, Winning Here, chronicles his first 30 years in politics.
Liverpool-born Rennard offers us plenty of sausage-making (enough of the metaphors, now), in particular how, while still a teenager, he established a reputation as a gifted election strategist, masterminding a string of key by-election wins.
It is fair to say the laymen’s view of elections is that the candidates stand up, make their pitch, and then the voters make an informed choice based on their own beliefs and values. However, you don’t have to get too many pages in to realise there’s a bit more to it than that.
Homeless at 16
Lord Rennard was born plain old Chris Rennard in Liverpool in 1960, one of thee male siblings, to parents Cecil and Jean. Cecil was a Yorkshireman who had fought, and lost a leg, in the First World War. He was 71 when young Chris was born. Cecil was a dentist in the Old Swan area of Liverpool and, on his retirement, moved his family to nearby Wavertree.
Cecil died in 1963 and the Liverpool home that she shared with Jean and three young sons was to be sold with his will leaving the proceeds split with the daughter (to whom he had already given a house) and also two step children from his late first wife. This would have made Jean and the three boys homeless until a successful legal action allowed them all to remain in the house “for the duration” of Jean’s life.
Sadly, Jean died unexpectedly at just 54 of heart disease and Rennard, then just 16, found himself homeless. However, the headteacher of the local blind school, and his wife, Derek and Lillian Marks, were friends of the family and allowed young Rennard to live in one of the staff bedsits.
The teenager’s lifelong connection with Liberal politics was forged early on when local Liberal councillor, Cyril Carr, managed to sort out a wrangle over Jean’s widow’s allowance. It was an event Rennard describes as “one of the most significant of my life”.
By the time he was 13 he was delivering leaflets for the party.
Politics, it is often said, is a dirty business, which is undoubtedly true. However, the overriding message from Rennard’s memoirs is that it is mainly bloody hard work, and not very well paid. Far from being ambitious careerists, it seems many people working to get candidates elected will make significant personal sacrifices just to be part of the process.
Rennard cut his teeth as a teenage election agent for the then Liberal Party in Liverpool during the rough and tumble days of the toxic Militant Tendency, which then had a strong grip on the Labour Party in the city.
The books reveals why opinion polls are so important during election campaigns. If you know your candidate is five points down at the start it gives the strategists a clear target to aim for. Rennard understands another US political maxim very well – that ‘politics is retail’.
Rennard saw this clearly from an early age and his successful campaigns became a playbook that the Liberal Party, and later the Liberal Democrats, would come to use to great effect on the national stage.
It is about getting out there with carefully targeted leaflets – ones that speak to local issues that matter, not generic platitudes, phone calls, door-to-door canvassing, public meetings. Engaging directly with voters as much as possible.
It was through this meticulous attention to detail, and the sheer graft of Rennard and an army of more experienced party volunteers from Liverpool and across the country, that saw David Alton elected MP for the then Liverpool constituency of Edge Hill, with an astonishing 30% swing from Labour to Liberals, in March 1979.
It was a result that was said to have “saved the Liberal Party” and by his 20s Rennard was regarded as the most successful election campaigner the party had known.
However, Winning Here is far from a dry political manual. It is a compelling and very personal story that chronicles Rennard’s early-life struggles, his tendency to become obsessively focused and therefore overworked and the subsequent impact on his finances, his personal life and his mental health.
It’s a story of a man totally dedicated to the furthering of a political ideal and illustrates vividly how such a degree of commitment always comes at a personal price.
Winning Here is available now at www.bitebackpublishing.com and on Amazon