Polls and predictions: The Chris Rennard Interview

Chris RennardLiberal Democrat News has just published extracts from an interview with Lord (Chris) Rennard, former Lib Dem Chief Executive, and Director of Campaigns and Elections. The interview appears in full below.
Journalist York Membery is a regular contributor to the nationals. He is also a contributing editor to the Journal of Liberal History.

Chris is credited with masterminding a string of past by-election victories as well as the target seat strategy that increased our number of MPs from 19 to 63. He tells York Membery that we should look to the future with hope not fear…

What’s your take on the current electoral situation?

The ‘mid-term position’ in polls has been dramatically different to the final outcome in elections in seven of the last eight Parliaments. So nobody should make forecasts for 2015 based on opinion polls in 2012. Much will obviously depend upon the state of the economy and how people feel about how well off they are (or are likely to be in future). The problem for the Liberal Democrats is explaining that whilst coalition is difficult (especially when you only have 57 out of 650 MPs), things are better because you have been in Government and would be much worse if either of the other major parties had an overall majority.

Our current poll ratings suggest we’re going to have a fight holding on to all our parliamentary seats. Any thoughts?

The fate of our MPs and candidates will depend much more on what they do in their constituencies, than what polls suggest is happening in other seats. There are some good grounds for thinking that things will improve nationally by the General Election. But when times are tough nationally, they need to look back at how Liberal MPs like David Penhaligon increased their majorities in very difficult years such as 1979 following the Lib Lab Pact. His work in Truro was the basis of increasing his majority from around 500 to 10,000. We should also remember that we fell (slightly) in the national polls between 1992 and 1997, but more than doubled our number of MPs when I persuaded the party (and key donors) to adopt a serious targeting policy for the first time. The ‘breakthrough’ that year was based on community based campaigning in those seats and concentrating resources. Our activists in each of those seats didn’t all act spontaneously on this – it was crucial that the party changed strategy in the middle of that Parliament to back them to the hilt. With more financial resource we could have done even better.

The party is in a very different situation to the days when you masterminded some of our stunning by-election victories in the 1990s and early 2000s. There is the incumbency factor for a start. How do we best respond / adapt?

The circumstances were often very different at particular times in that period 1990 – 2006 when I oversaw 13 winning parliamentary by-election campaigns and had fantastic teams of people working with me (many of whom are still working for the party today). In by-elections and target seats, we led the campaigns in terms of techniques, but the candidates (and their teams) were hugely important and the messaging at every level was paramount. The other parties learned all they know from us about parliamentary by-elections and targeting, but fortunately they didn’t learn all that we know.

Talking of by-elections, do you think we have a hope in hell of winning any in the current parliament?

Yes.

I read an article recently in which a pundit argued that the Lib Dem ‘brand’ had been seriously damaged by (1) the tuition fees issue and (2) being in coalition with the Conservatives. Do you give much credence to such claims?

Being in coalition was always going to be very difficult. I did a memo to Paddy in 1998 about coalition saying that we might expect a national poll rating of 10% if we went into coalition with Labour as he was then hoping. In 2010, electoral arithmetic (or what Vince Cable called the ‘perfect snooker’) and the economic crisis forced us in to this coalition with the Conservatives. We made a mistake in looking too pleased to be working with them when we were simply doing business with them – it is a professional relationship not a personal one. Everyone knows that we mishandled the communications issues around tuition fees. But the party also mishandled this policy before the General Election when we should have set out to scrap fees by replacing them with the closest we could get to a progressive graduate tax protecting students from poorer backgrounds in particular. This is in effect is what we have now, but we made the mistake of making the policy appear to be based simply on increasing fees.

I can’t help feeling that we’re still struggling to differentiate ourselves at the local level from what is happening at nationally. Would you agree – and how can we get around this in the run up to the 2013 and 2014 local elections?

We certainly are. People like Councillors and MSPs who lost their seats in recent years should generally not blame themselves personally. The problem with having to do something for five years is that it may look like you did the right thing in five years, but for those with elections before then it is very tough in most areas – especially those that are Labour facing. In parliamentary seats we hold against the Conservatives, we made net gains in the council elections in May. But elsewhere, people were kicking out good elected representatives in protest. The elections of 2011 and 2012 reminded me of those of 1977 (height of the Lib Lab Pact). But by 1978 we were recovering and those with the strongest local campaigns were able to make gains again. It was also very tough in the local elections after the Liberal/SDP merger in 1988. I re-wrote the party’s local election campaign manual that year (based on earlier work by Tony Greaves) and with Andrew Stunell (then head of ALDC) we ran a big series of campaign training day events with professional trainers (like Candy Piercy) on the basic community campaign techniques. Identifying the issues, getting something done about them, and reporting back in every possible way about what you have done for people remain the key steps to maximising your opportunity.

Much of our success has traditionally come from campaigning hard at the local level. With important local elections approaching next year and the year after, how soon should we hit the campaign trail locally?

Long ago.

Finally, would you care to make any predictions as to how many parliamentary seats we’ll end up with in 2015?

Before the 2001 General Election, Deirdre Razzall’s ‘ little black book’ of election predictions by leading Lib Dems recorded my forecast that we would win 52 or 53 seats. We won 52 (up from 46 in 1997). In 2005, I thought that we would win 65 seats and we won 63 (16 gains and 5 losses). But these forecasts for the General Elections in which I was most closely involved were based on my detailed knowledge of what was happening in particular constituencies. I don’t have that knowledge now, but I would say that the number of seats that we win in 2015 will depend upon what is happening in those seats rather than what may happen in general across 650 seats. So most ‘forecasts’ based crudely on national polls assuming ‘uniform swing’ will as usual be quite wrong – providing that we get things right in the constituency messaging and campaigns. How many seats we win depends on what we do.

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4 Comments

  • You make the mistake in thinking people will forgive what you have done with Tuition Fees, EMA and the NHS, they won’t. If the economy does pick up, and if it does I would not be expecting an economic miracle, some may credit this to the Tories, but most will see this merely as a symptom of what is happening in USA and Europe, No one will credit this to the Lib Dems and, remember, you keep telling us how much you can’t affect in government due to the number of MP’s you have.

    But even if the economy suddenly bloomed, I for one would never vote for you again and I am sure there are many like minded people out there. You compare the voting patterns with what has happened perilously, but there is no comparison to what you have done in government. Your latest strategy is typically of what we have seen from you over the last few years, Pie in the Sky.

  • Never is a very long time in politics.

    How short memories are. I have no doubt that Mr Jay was amongst those who despaired of Labour over Iraq, Tuition fees (YES, they started them despite saying they wouldn’t), detention without trial, the attack on civil liberties, the 3rd Heathrow runway, the disasterous economic policies that left the UK up the creek without a paddle (and no money either according the the Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury), not to mention the privatisation of the NHS (YES, Labour started that too – see Professor Alyson Pollack’s book NHS PLC). Now that can all be forgotten and hatred can be focussed on the Lib Dems, who dared to go into government and leave Labour in opposition.

    Doing what is right is never popular and fair weather friends like Mr Jay can carry on ignoring the realities and living in a wonderful world where there are no cuts, no tax rises and the UK goes down the pan like Greece.

  • Mickft

    I am one of those who you are describing above, although I am a lifelong LD voter (apart from 97) my sentiments were always much closer to Labour than the Tories and saw the problems with Labour being from their attempts to out-Tory the Tories.

    I would say though that any Government in power after 9/11 and the hysteria that followed it would have done the same, look at the opprobrium heaped on the French, not least by your new Tory friends. As to civil liberties and the rest, again the Tories have not been shy in coming forward on this and the Coalition has not been that active in repealing the civil liberty problems started under Major and continued by Blair and co.

    As to the economics I suggest you go back and look at the context of the comment you quote and also how this matches the Conservative spin.

    When push comes to shove though,do you really expect me as an ‘always vote’ voter to support the LD who have been following the Tory line since 2010 and have allowed further NHS privatisation, laughable education reform and welfare destruction? Your Tory pals are trying to frighten us by saying Labour are now to much to the left under Red Ed – well I for one hope they are right and will probably vote for his party if that is the case.

    Remember the ‘fair-weather’ friends are the ones who have contributed in your vote increases since 92 and are now routinely insulted by your leadership and people like you. Doesn’t seem good politics to me?

  • Gosh, so former supporters who are angry because of a pledge being broken are ‘fair weather friends’ now? I could, with little trouble, take that apart!

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