Yesterday, before Nick Clegg’s speech, Susan Kramer kindly agreed to let a few of us interview her, as part of a series of bloggers’ interviews of the three declared presidential candidates (Susan did in fact give us the highly exciting news that Jason Zadrozny was dropping from the race to support her, embargoed until 4pm that day. I’m fairly sure I’m OK to reveal this now, though!). Anxious not to get left at the back of an ever increasing line to see Nick’s speech, though, we decided to abandon the room Helen had kindly arranged for us, and instead find a patch of floor on the other side of the conference security.
I should, incidentally, declare an interest at this point, in the interests of transparency, in that I am supporting Jennie Rigg to be president. That said, I’m certainly not hostile to Susan’s candidacy, and might very well give her my second preference.
Anyway, Mary started out, perhaps unsurprisingly, by asking Susan about why she decided to run and what her aims would be as president. She seems to have been persuaded to stand (in part, at least) by several people she met at the recent Earl’s Court by-election urging her to stand, following the surprise announcement by Ros Scott that she was not standing for a second term as party president. Susan has been a great admirer of Ros’s presidency; she approved of some of the internal reform of the party which Ros contributed to, and says that she wants to pick up the baton of Ros’s “pastoral” approach to the role, travelling the country regularly and keeping in contact with the party’s grassroots around the country. She argues that trying to help build and maintain the party’s strength and unity will be increasingly essential in the years ahead, and the Westminster elements of the job correspondingly less so, and she suggests that the time she has to commit to the role now that she is not an MP would be a definite asset in these circumstances. When I invited her to suggest that the job is one that could not be done effectively by someone who is also working full time as an MP, she suggested that this is particularly true in the present circumstances – it seems that she would not want to criticise past presidents like Simon Hughes who have done the job whilst being MPs, but the definite implication is that she does not think an MP could do the job at the moment.
The elephant in the room of course is the coalition. Whilst the party president’s position is outside of government, the coalition has such implications for the party that none of the candidates can sensibly ignore it. Where Tim Farron has tried to pitch himself as wanting the job as a springboard from which to act as a kind of ideologically pure surrogate party leader (whilst Nick has to sully himself with collective responsibility), Susan sees the important thing as being more to do with making sure the party helps the activists on the ground. Campaigning in Earl’s Court, Susan and the other party activists understandably faced a number of questions about the coalition, and it occurred to her that the activists need better and more timely information from the federal party to help them on the doorsteps to sell the Lib Dems’ part in the coalition. Both improving the speed of some of the communications structures Ros set up, and also occasionally “just picking up the phone” at the crucial point where it might make the difference – in byelections, for instance – were cited as goals. She is clearly aware that as a campaigning machine, the Lib Dems have some way to go to regain their position ahead of the other two parties in campaigning terms, when we will never have the resources of the other parties.
She was also keen to make the point that, although not an MP any more, she does still have media contacts and would be a relatively safe bet for media appearances on Newsnight, Question Time, etc.
That said, Susan was keen to emphasise that all of the candidates for the presidency were “exceptional people”, and that any of them would be brilliant, but would bring different things and a different emphasis to the role.
Next up, Alex Wilcock, as channelled by Stephen Tall, asked a couple of questions via the miracle of email: When so many people say that politicians are “all the same” these days, what do you think the Lib Dems stand for, and why should people vote for us. Essentially, Susan’s answer boils down to the combination of freedom and social justice. She describes the previous Labour government’s surveillance state as “terrifying”, and says that the Conservatives would not have countered it without us. She also cites her experience of living in the USA in the past, which has given her reason to cherish the centrality of social justice and genuine opportunity to decision making here. She thinks people should vote for us because we are in tune with the Britain most people want to see, where people are “respected as individuals”, but also supported by communities, where children are central to our concerns, and we have a very British respect for freedom. Family members of hers fought in both world wars for those freedoms, she points out. The environment also figures in her run-down of why people should vote for us.
Next, I asked if Susan had any thoughts on combating the geographical and time/money-rich biases which affect participation in the party’s federal structures. Whilst she was aware of the issue, and agreed that anything that could be done about it should be, Susan was reluctant to suggest that there were any magic bullets, aware that much has already been tried – and that the other parties are even worse from that point of view. One suggestion was that regional and national parties be strengthened and embedded, which is particularly important now we face the Scottish and Welsh nationalists as well as the traditional two parties.
Another question from Alex followed, a particularly mean one at that: Why should the party presidency be a consolation prize for losing your seat? Unsurprisingly, Susan was keen to deny that she saw it as any such thing, arguing “I don’t need consolations, I’ve had a wonderful time with the party”, not only as an MP but also as a London mayoral candidate. The people she felt sorry for were the PPCs who had sacrificed so much to fight the election, but never made it into parliament. She says that she now feels this is something she can do, for the party and for the grass-roots who have campaigned for her as MP and for mayor of London over the years.
Lastly, asked how the coalition affects how we as a party proceed, she said simply that we keep our core values, develop new policy which is not the same thing as coalition policy, but remember that we do have to compromise. She was keen that the party should not simply be an echo of the coalition, but at the same time, the party’s unity would not be best served by allowing the coalition to be an area of conflict; the leadership, she was keen to remind people, do have responsibilities.
And with that, we grabbed a quick photo, and trooped into the hall to watch Nick’s speech from up in the gods at the back of the hall. Now that she isn’t an MP, she might have more time to devote to other things, but there was no seat with Susan’s name on it down the front of the hall this year.