Last weekend, I intended to write about Chris Rennard’s column in Liberal Democrat News, ‘Going beyond Rennard’, but real life intervened. James Graham’s post on the same subject reassures me that it’s not too late.
Having been a student at Leicester University in the mid-1980s when Chris was East Midlands Area Agent, I can claim to be an early disciple of and missionary for Rennardism. What I learned from Chris in Leicester about winning elections, I brought back to Watford and his techniques have been the basis of our success. Pretty much all the constituencies that have done well in the past two decades will owe him an immense debt.
But Chris’s genius is for electoral tactics and organisation, which is only part of a political party’s operation, and arguably should be subordinate to its wider political mission. If it has been the Lib Dems’ good fortune to have Chris’s immense election-winning skills, it has been our misfortune not to have someone of equivalent stature in charge of policy and political strategy. Mandelson and Co. remodelled the Labour party - not just its style of campaigning but its whole political approach. By contrast, Rennardism is about persuading people to ‘vote for us this time’, rather than to convert them to Liberalism.
As a result, at times it has seemed that the immediate needs of the next election campaign have driven our political narrative rather than the other way round. In my more cynical moments, I suspect that Scotland now has free care for the elderly and no tuition fees not because these are part of a distinctive Liberal approach to society, but because both made good subjects for target mailings and petitions.
The party has learned how to win votes, but needs to learn also how to win hearts and minds. It is noticeable that there are no national newspapers or serious magazines and journals that consistently support the Liberal Democrats. Indeed it is hard to imagine what a Lib-Dem supporting daily or weekly would look like, how it would differ from say The Guardian and the New Statesman (both of which tend to back Labour). It is hard to name a single public intellectual, serious broadsheet journalist or academic who is associated with the Lib Dems. It ought to be a source of shame that although decentralisation and localism are Liberal ideas, the best-known writers associated with the cause are Simon Jenkins, who far from supporting us recently called for the party to disband, and Tristram Hunt a wannabe Labour MP.
Of course, some will argue that such things don’t matter: ‘Eggheads are overrated, they only have one vote each like the rest of us and few people really decide which party to vote for on the basis of broadsheet op-ed pieces, let alone obscure academic monographs and the like’. Such a view is fine if we are simply in the business of coming up with the catchiest, most appealing sales pitch to persuade people to vote for the yellow team not the red or blue equivalent next time.
Our purpose has to be more than that. The Liberal Democrats should be about better public services, more responsive to people, locally accountable. We should be defending citizens from an overweening, bullying state. We should strive to show that it is possible to defend our citizens without jettisoning civil liberties. More contentiously, perhaps, our aim should be to show that it is possible to have progressive, but not nannyish government. To achieve these things, we have to create an intellectual climate where there is a critical mass of support for a distinctively Liberal Democrat approach.
Chris concluded his article by saying that ‘we have to inspire the country with our vision’, but then emphasises that ‘our message must be explained in terms of the tangible benefits of our policies to the people whose votes we seek’. To my mind this both misses the point about the criticisms that are made of his approach and attempts to re-fight an argument that is already won.
We are already pretty good at the latter. I think that pretty much everyone involved in Lib Dem campaigning anywhere that we are serious about winning understands that we have to make our campaigning persuasive to our potential voters, that long tracts about constitutional reform are a no-no in election addresses. The point is that we are rather less good at explaining and inspiring people with our vision, and we need to spend more time doing so. For the Liberal Democrats in a future government to make a real difference we need to win the battle for ideas as well as the fight for votes.