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Why do the Lib Dems care so much about Lord Rennard?

Lord Rennard was key to the rise of the Lib Dems - and the dirty politics that came with it. This is why so many Lib Dems have been quicker to defend him than they were to stand up for the NHS.

Chris Rennard - wikimedia

There’s an obvious question probably hovering in the minds of many citizens in our kingdom at the moment, as they watch the LibDems tear themselves apart in agonising civil war over ‘Rennardgate’: Why are so many LibDems going easy on him? Why don’t they join together and do every thing they can to ditch him, as quick as possible? Why spend more energy on a man who is clearly now a public liability, than on issues of genuine importance? It would have been wonderful to have seen the LibDems convulsed by (for example) the dismantling of the NHS that the Government that they are a part of is overseeing. It would have been cheering, if many of them had gone to the wall over that vital issue; but they don’t appear to be that bothered by it. They appear to be spending much more energy on Rennard (in some cases: on defending Rennard) than they ever did on the NHS. So the question I’m asking could be rephrased like this: why are some LibDems (notably, a good number of LibDem Parliamentarians) standing up to their leader when he is complaining about multiple serious allegations from women against Lord Rennard, but not when he was entirely complicit in the dismemberment of the NHS? The Lib Dems risk spinning this affair out right through 'til May, which will surely hurt them even more in elections that were already looking likely to be disastrous for them. Why? Why not lance the boil?

In order to understand what the answer is to this question, it is necessary to understand the answer to a more basic question. Who is Lord Rennard? I mean: who is he to the LibDems? What does he mean, to the average LibDem activist? And thereby hangs a tale.

Because, while Lord Rennard has until recently hardly been a household name, he has been well-known for years to politicos, and worshipped by many LibDems. Ask an honest LibDem (if you can find one) who they most credit for their Party’s virtually relentless rise in electoral popularity from 1989 to the televised Prime Ministerial debates of 2010, and they will name not Paddy Ashdown, not Charles Kennedy, not Nick Clegg, not Shirley Williams, not even David Laws or Vince Cable; they will name Rennard.

For it was he who, as Campaigns Director and then Chief Executive, masterminded so many of their often-startling byelection successes during that period. And it was he who oversaw the full-scale implementation of ‘community politics’ as a strategy for the seemingly-endless rise in LibDem Council seats, and a tripling of their number of MPs.

However, this success had a very unseemly underbelly. For, while the LibDems’ nationally sought to portray themselves as a better lot than the two duopoly parties, the reality on the ground was that their campaigning tactics became widely-known in political circles as the dirtiest in the business.

Take these famous (in such circles) words, from a Rennard-inspired campaigning guide for LibDems, that was eventually leaked and widely-circulated:

‘Be wicked, act shamelessly, stir endlessly’, ‘Oppose all service cuts… No cut is going to be popular and why court the unpopularity that goes with the responsibility of power?’.

Or consider the infamous LibDem strategy of using dodgy graphs on their leaflets: graphs that misrepresent systematically the support of the LibDems’ rivals; graphs that always somehow seem to show that “It’s a two-horse race” and that one of those horses is orange; graphs that endlessly aim to encourage voters to vote tactically for the LibDems – even when there is no genuine tactical case at the election in question for voting LibDem.

I have substantial personal experience of this. First, as a LibDem activist: I was present at various by-election HQs and saw these dubious tactics being employed, from by-elections such as Fulham in the 1980s onward into the full-blown Rennard era. (See for this piece more. And yes, I know: there’s nothing like the zeal of a convert…)

Second, as a Green politician: I have written about the obsessive use of dodgy graphs and dodgy claims as deployed against me / against the Greens by the LibDems during the 2009 European Elections.

And some readers will recall the interesting events of the Norwich North by-election that followed, when, in a case of life imitating art (fans of The West Wing will know to what I refer, and whence I first got the idea) I sought to improve the way that politics was conducted in this country by initiating a ‘Clean Campaign Pledge’. Perhaps surprisingly, it got traction. (see this interesting article looking back on the Norwich North campaign by Theresa May, who was the Conservative Party's Campaign Manager for the by-election. Note how May ends the interview.). All of the five main parties in the by-election signed up – except for the Lib Dems who instead unleashed a torrent of abuse at me, including twisting my record of staunch opposition to the Iraq War in order to try to make me appear an apologist for terrorism. On this occasion, it doesn’t seem to have done the Lib Dems any good: they spent 5 times as much as the Green Party did on the by-election campaign, but won only 5% more votes than we did. And the by-election campaign, apart from the behaviour of the Lib Dems, was cleaner than most; the pledge made it difficult for candidates to get away with stuff that they normally try on in by-elections.

The rise of the Lib Dems over the last generation has been at the cost of a dirtying of political campaigning in this country. It would be hard to evidence that the latter helped the former (because where is the counter-factual? Maybe the Lib Dems would have risen as far and as fast if they had actually played fair, and won a sounder reputation), but the two are inextricable at least in this sense: both owe a lot to Lord Rennard.

Thus, to those who care about the lowering of politics – and that is surely all of us here on openDemocracy – Lord Rennard has a lot to answer for. He has presided over an atmosphere in which Lib Dems are encouraged to abuse their power, to lower the tone, to mislead and obfuscate: in a ‘higher’ cause. LibDems have let the ends (of getting what they wanted, at any cost) ‘justify’ the means for a long time now.

So: the answer to the question I posed above is relatively straightforward, once one understands what I have laid out above. Rennard matters because, rightly or wrongly, most Lib Dems credit him with being the architect of their rise to power over the past generation. Sadly, very few LibDems have as yet acknowledged that Rennardism included the systematic use of deception and worse, in order to help achieve that rise.

Maybe, as they drag out their Rennardgate disaster over the coming months, and come to terms with the damage that this man has inflicted on them, that lack of acknowledgement might just start to change.

About the author

Dr. Rupert Read is Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia. He was a two-term elected Green Party councillor in Norwich. He now Chairs the Green House think tank.

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