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Liberal Vision interviews Susan Kramer

October 21st, 2010 Posted in Liberal Democrats by

Following our interview with Tim Farron last week, this week Susan Kramer on her campaign for Party President.

Some of the highlights include:

  • Why Susan wants to be the connection between the grass-roots and leadership
  • Her views on the smoking ban, green taxes, Heathrow, tuition fees, and the role of Conference
  • Being a pragmatic Orange Book liberal and discretionary attack dog
  • Whether we need another “media star able to put their foot in it”
  • Keeping the internal communications on an election footing outside elections
  • Reaching out to the City and avoiding silly stereotypes.
  • The Kodak philosophy of local party support
  • & on whether Parliamentarians have the time for this role… being asked to take casework at her husband’s funeral

LV: In one sentence why should people who read our blog back your campaign?

SK: Overwhelmingly it’s to be the voice for the grass roots of the party, creating that two-way connection between the grass roots and the leadership, and keeping us unified. We shouldn’t let other pull us apart

LV: One of your three key statements is that “we should be true to our core beliefs”. What are our core beliefs

SK: A very strong sense of community, decision-making as close to people as possible, but in a democratic and accountable way. The devolution of power out of Westminster, internationalism, the environment and social justice. Those are the strands that define the Liberal Democrats.

Civil liberties are an absolute. Much of what Labour did, such as 90-day detention without trial, was completely unacceptable. The authoritarian left of Labour is very powerful. It tunes well with popular sentiment, and their civil libertarians proved lacking in backbone when it came to challenging that

LV: What about similar contradictions in this party?

SK: I think we’re pretty consistent, particularly on civil liberties. The notion of splits is quite exaggerated. What the media describe as orange-bookers and the left, in practice have a thin piece of paper between them on a range of policies. Part of the reason for that is the strength of the social justice strand in our thinking, alongside our traditional liberal strand. Most people who join the party try to find some balance or common ground between the two.

LV: But there are difficult issues, in civil liberties the smoking or hunting bans for example, how do you find common ground there?

SK: There are some exceptions, but I don’t think for most people in the party that these are core issues. They’re not insignificant, but they don’t get to the heart of what civic life is about, so we have to look at the balance of sentiment in this democratic party, most of which has no difficulty with either ban.

LV: Surely civil liberties are absolutes where sometimes you have to defend the rights of the minority?

SK: There are civil liberties that are absolutes. I’m not sure the right to damage someone else’s health through your smoke falls into that category. We can end up counting angels on the heads of pins on these issues, but if in doubt we can go back to the grass roots of the party and assess where sentiment lies.

LV: Are the grass roots of the party in touch with the sentiments of the British people?

SK: I think our grass roots are very much in touch with people, but also ready to stand up and lead. If you take an issue like the environment for example, our party was prepared to take a lot of slings and arrows for many years, on a matter most of the public regarded as flaky. But once we got into a dialogue, it touched on areas of life that really mattered to people, their children, protection of resources and health, and taking the long view; it begun to resonate very strongly. So we lead opinion but are very much embedded in the community when we do it.

LV: Have you noted any backlash (from the public) on environmental issues?

SK: I’ve noted a lot of hypocrisy from the other parties, trying to both show concern on climate change and be pro-motorist. The Conservative Council in Richmond for example removed our parking charge scheme that was based on CO2 emissions.

LV: Is a parked car environmentally damaging?

SK: That kind of argument gets used, but is completely irrelevant, those cars will one day get moved. The question is do you incentivise people to choose cars that cause less environmental damage when they get moved, or do you say it doesn’t matter.

We are local government activists and that ties into our philosophy on devolution of power.

LV: Moving on, you wrote a chapter for the Orange Book, are you an orange book liberal?

SK: I’m quite comfortable being seen as an Orange Book liberal, I think for example in dealing with the environment the enormous power of the market has not been tapped to meet that challenge.

LV: Do libertarians have a place in this party?

SK: It’s not something I’ve given much thought, I’m not a party philosopher, the party as a whole though tends to look for some balance. Much of the party is also focused on equality of opportunity, through mechanisms like the pupil premium. People who are vulnerable need to be supported, in a way a traditional libertarian would not do.

But I’m not sure. I’ve never sat down and tried to draw a spectrum with lines on it. I suppose I take a similar line to that taken by the liberal wing of the church of England… If you think you belong in this party, you probably do.

I’m not keen on the notion of rigid tests of purity. Anyone who does take on membership of a political party that wants to be in government does have to have some sense of the pragmatic. If some point of principle has hideous outcomes you don’t do it.

LV: What’s the difference between opposition and being a distinct voice in a coalition?

SK: I think we have something important to do in politics, that the UK is not used to, to make coalitions the norm. Whether or not we win the AV referendum, I suspect this will become the norm anyway, given the way voters now look at life.

So in that world, we have to direct our development as a party based on our values and principles, but accept, in a positive way, that members of the Coalition may not be able to implement them in full, but might mitigate the objectives of others.

We have to communicate to the public that we operate on two levels. One, what we would do if the majority, the other what we do to adapt in coalition.

LV: So as an example, had we gone into coalition with Labour, one of their policies was to expand Heathrow Airport, what would you have done? (Susan resigned from the Shadow Cabinet in 2009 in order to lead the party’s anti-expansion campaign)

SK: I would have voted against. During the coalition negotiations we would have worked to find a mechanism that worked for both parties, and I suspect, given opposition to this within Labour this would not have been hard.

LV: What’s the best outcome for the party on tuition fees?

SK: It would obviously be wonderful if the government would forget tuition fees and decide to do things differently. Being realistic, that’s not going to happen, and it’s an issue that needed to be (and was) confronted at the point of coalition. It was a principled decision to sign the pledge. It was a principled decision to sign the coalition agreement. Consequently both the people who now vote against, and those vote for the best mitigation are sticking to their principles. There is not only one principled position in this party. There’s also a lot going for some elements of the proposals, raising the thresholds to £21,000 for example, and there is quite some time to improve the deal.

LV: Did you sign the pledge?

SK: Yes I did

LV: Did you believe it?

SK: Yes, to me it’s a high priority to try and keep education free and try and persuade others to back that decision

LV: It’s a regressive decision isn’t it?

SK: Yes it is, but in the same way as funding primary and secondary education is a regressive decision also, or at least where some standard of access is required. We make the abstract decision to fund primary and secondary all the way through and then we argue about what the final age is where that standard applies. To what age do we equip you with the things you need to make a success of yourself in society.

Also I think as President my personal views are not the main issue. We do not need another voice out there talking enthusiastically about their personal opinions. We need someone to try and hold the ring.

LV: This is a fairly key dividing line in the contest. Tim is likely to speak out. Is that the President’s job?

SK: There’s no job description as such, people make of the job what they will. What tends to matter is what is appropriate for a particular time, and people can come to different judgements. My judgement is that two things are critical at the current time, reconnecting the grass-roots with the Leadership through two-way communications, and holding the ring for the internal debate.

For example, with elections in Scotland and Wales, it is quite possible that the Liberal Democrats could be in different coalitions regionally and nationally. We don’t have an identified post for holding all that together and it seems to me the President is the only one available.

LV: Would it be dangerous to the unity of the party to have someone using the position as a Leader in waiting platform.

SK: I think the party needs to look at both candidates and make the call which way they want to go.

LV:With her experience she can challenge city bankers on their own terms”. (campaign quote) Is that what the President does?

SK: I think it doesn’t hurt in a world where economic prosperity and jobs are going to be a key part of the agenda, but it’s not top of the priority list for what the President does.

LV: What was your biggest mistake in Richmond Park? (Susan lost her seat to Conservative Zac Goldsmith in the 2010 election)

SK: Personally, I think I could have worked harder to keep a national profile to offset the sense of celebrity that surrounded my opponent. (The absence of that) gave the media more permission to run the narrative they wanted, supportive of my opponent such as the Evening Standard’s aggressive Beauty and the Beast campaign.

LV: Is it better to be an “attack dog” or “diplomat”, and which are you?

SK: My preference is the diplomatic approach, but one should always keep in reserve the ability to sink teeth into ankles when necessary. An attack dog is far fiercer and effective if deployed rarely with discretion and force.

LV: In your recent campaign literature you say “Susan will campaign with you across the country”. In an interview with the Independent in July you say “I do need to have a job” and “I no longer have to walk around permanently attached to a handheld PDA device, to be constantly in communication”. What has changed?

SK: My family would clearly love me to get another job, but I am now 60 so I do have the time to commit and sense of obligation to give something back to the party that has always supported me. I cannot tell you how much it has meant to see the numbers of people who just turn up to help at the various campaigns I’ve been involved in over the years. I can now give something back.

Further having taken the summer off from politics, the appetite is still there, I find the issues fascinating, I remaind dedicated to the party, so stepping away was not as easy as I thought.

I’ve also always loved the grass-roots, and it’s really important to challenge the perception that the Federal Executive don’t care about who they are and what they do. I’ve been round the country in the past few weeks, and there’s nothing that can replace that face to face contact. I was down in Bath on Monday, and at a meeting that started at 19:30 we kept on talking until 23:30. Those voices need to be heard by the leadership.

And that alongside the general communications. Our activists should be learning what is going on from us, not the newspapers.

LV: In practical terms, what’s going to change?

SK: Broadly taking the good communications we built up during the election campaign and applying that outside elections. I want that put on a permanent basis, the newsletters, e-mails and so on, that should be a no-brainer. We should have a members’ welcome pack, really basic stuff.

Internally I think the organisation has a long way to go to come into the 21st century. It’s tough with the loss of staff and the short-money, but we need to face the realities of being a national party.

LV: How are you going to encourage the growth of supporters outside the party?

SK: This is an issue we really need to take on and it’s related to getting our message across. We don’t have a pet newspaper. What I want to do is reach out to the natural communities with whom we have links, for example civil liberties and equalities, and reaching out to them as people not just as potential Liberal Democrats. There are many natural alliances where we need to reach out.

LV: Is the issue reaching out to our natural allies or in areas where we have traditionally not been strong?

SK: I’ve always thought there was scope to reach out into the City and the world of Finance. The party’s stereotypes are not right, the head of Goldman Sachs for example worked for Bill Clinton. There are a lot of alliances the party could build and the President can support that.

LV: Our previous Director once described the structure of the Party as like the old Soviet Union; no one in charge and multiple overlapping committees with unclear remits. Is that fair?

SK: The Federal Executive is our key body and it has made moves to be more transparent and accountable. I’d like to give that time to work. I don’t think restructuring for restructuring’s sake is what we’re really in to. A lack of resource is more important than structure.

We also struggle to support local parties in this area. Maybe what we need is a ‘Kodak’ philosophy, i.e. you point and click and the camera works. We need to get technology and support down to the local level so you point and click and the system works, freeing up their time to understand their communitees and visible campaigning. Not messing around with structures. The technology to back that up though is a big ask.

LV: As Chair of the Federal Executive what would you have done differently during the expenses scandal?

SK: I didn’t follow in detail what Ros (Scott) did and didn’t do. She has a great deal of trust and respect amongst the grass roots. Without her providing that stability I think we would have found it much rougher going through the disappointment of the last general election.

It’s one of those areas where the President has to work hand in glove with the people on the front line, the MPs and the Leadership. I think it was very difficult for anyone who was a member of Parliament to argue that the Liberal Democrats were very little implicated. Or that the stories that did capture the public mood were good stories, a piece of furniture or packet of biscuits for example, but not in the same league as flipping homes. Anyone standing up and saying that would look self-serving.

I’m not sure we got the credit we deserved with the media on that, but the President’s role is to bring people together and move things on, as you said earlier, the diplomat’s role. But we have more than enough media stars able to put their foot in it, what we are missing is the linkage and supportive roles.

LV: How would you have handled the Michael Brown scandal?

SK: Hopefully I might have spotted the problem before we got there. But in those circumstances you have to do a mea culpa, and this is not a donor from whom we would take another donation. After that I would hope we learnt from the experience and moved on.

LV: The free schools vote at conference, and Nick’s response. Does this show Conference is just another think tank, or should such votes be binding?

SK: I don’t think votes can be binding when we have coalition arrangements. Nor is it just a think tank role, it’s asking to people to use their energies to achieve those goals the party supports. And outside coalition? I think people are realistic and understand there are constraints like financial resources. Conference though must remain the driver of Liberal Democrat policy. I’d be quite keen for example for the party to get engaged with renewing the coalition agreement when that expires. Should everyone who goes to conference get a vote? (currently we operate a delegate system based around local parties). I haven’t spent much time thinking this through, but I guess with delegates you have people with a track record in the party who have thought things through and we hope talked through and discussed them with others.

There is something I’d like to see at conference, we do see people just coming into the hall for a vote, and that should be discouraged. If you’re going to vote you should listen to the argument. And you never did that yourself as an MP in Parliament. Yes, but then as MPs we were discussing the issues beforehand and agreeing positions consensually as a Parliamentary Party. At conference as well I have tried to avoid dashing in and voting when doing something else, but listening to the debates should still be encouraged. On the diversity debate for example I would say 50% of the people voting didn’t listen to the argument, dashing in the last minute.

LV: Do we need an A-list?

SK: I’m less prissy about the mechanism, but I’m very clear that positive action is something we need to do and my concern is even greater for ethnic minority representation. I’d have liked to have seen the requirement then that we have an ethnic minority on every short list. I don’t believe it was desperately anti-liberal. In London for example I have never seen so many people from a minority background put themselves forward as there is now a real sense of a real chance of being selected.

LV: Do you agree with Zac Goldsmith that you are a “a career politician who would blindly follow the party line?”

SK: (laughs) I always found that absolutely hilarious coming from Zac. I joined my party in 1994, aged 43, (after a long period in business). My opponent at the age of 30-something is already making politics his career. The underlying question here though, is in this race, is it fair to consider you the more establishment candidate? I always go with my own judgement. People know there is no point messing with me. I do look for the opportunity for consensus, and I don’t see rebelling as some special badge of honour. I joined the party because I am a Liberal Democrat and share the views and values of many others in this party. I would not though cast votes if I thought they were wrong.

In respect of being part of the establishment, I find it an odd comment. If you were to ask which inner circle I was a member of, people would struggle to name anyone.

LV: On April 1st you twittered “Just stroked a beautiful barn owl @ the stroke club in Sheen!”, just the date or do you really miss being an MP?

SK: (laughs) I loved a lot of the community work when being an MP and that really was a beautiful barn owl, looked after by the prisoners at Latchmere prison raptor project. But other than my passion for barn owls there are parts of it I miss and others I don’t. The absolute loss of privacy for example. People looking through my shopping basket to see what I’m buying. Now for example I can get on the bus without picking up a piece of casework. The worst example was people bringing casework to my husband’s funeral. That, I definitely do not miss. But I love remaining engaged with the community and will continue to do so.

LV: “Even her four-year old grandchildren know how to deliver a leaflet!” says your website, is this a good thing?

SK: (laughs) I suppose it could put someone off Liberal Democrat politics for life. But I’m one of the very lucky people whose family has been very supportive of what I’ve done. My husband when he was alive. My kids. I know a lot of people don’t have that. And it’s mutual we’re a family who really support each other in what we do with enthusiasm, so I’m delighted that’s gone on to the next generation.

LV: Susan Kramer, thank-you very much for speaking to Liberal Vision

6 Responses to “Liberal Vision interviews Susan Kramer”

  1. Graeme Hurst Says:

    Well done Susan, you’ve just convinced me to vote for you.

  2. Dave Atherton Says:

    “I’m not sure the right to damage someone else’s health through your smoke falls into that category.”

    Susan Kramer = fail.

    “Conclusions The results do not support a causal relation between environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco related mortality, although they do not rule out a small effect. The association between exposure to environmental tobacco smoke and coronary heart disease and lung cancer may be considerably weaker than generally believed.” (1)

    “In addition, influential anti-tobacco activists, including prominent academics, have unethically attacked the research of eminent scientists in order to further their ideological and political agendas.

    The abuse of scientific integrity and the generation of faulty “scientific” outcomes (through the use of pseudoscience) have led to the deception of the American public on a grand scale and to draconian government overregulation and the squandering of public money.Millions of dollars have been spent promoting belief in SHS as a killer, and more millions of dollars have been spent by businesses in order to comply with thousands of highly restrictive bans, while personal choice and freedom have been denied to millions of smokers. Finally, and perhaps most tragically, all this has diverted resources away from discovering the true cause(s) of lung cancer in nonsmokers. Dr. Jerome Arnett Pulmonologist. 2008 (2)



  3. Geoffrey Payne Says:

    I think Dr Jerome Arnett fails.
    He works for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and they have their own political agenda which includes climate change denial.

  4. Dave Atherton Says:

    @Geoffrey want to try these?

    Sir George Godber former Chief Medical Officer in 1975: “..foster an atmosphere where it was perceived that active smokers would injure those around them, especially their family and infants or young children who would be exposed involuntarily to the smoke in the air.” (1) and admitted by Dr. Alvan Feinstein “Yes, it’s rotten science, but it’s in a worthy cause. It will help us to get rid of cigarettes and become a smoke-free society” Yale University epidemiologist writing in Toxological Pathology in 1999 on passive smoking.”

  5. Mark Littlewood Says:

    @Geoffrey. What has climate change denial got to do with second hand smoke?

  6. Rebekah Gronowski Says:

    Susan asked the question –

    “Should everyone who goes to conference get a vote?

    She went on to say – (currently we operate a delegate system based around local parties). I haven’t spent much time thinking this through, but I guess with delegates you have people with a track record in the party who have thought things through and we hope talked through and discussed them with others.”

    I brought this up at our Local Party meeting after the Federal Conference and was told to put it before the Federal Conference Committee.

    I think that EVERY Party Member should have an equal right to vote and to put their names to a Motion presented for Federal Conference. Recently I felt very disenfranchised because I had no say in anything – I was not able to go to Federal Conference so, consequently, my voice was not heard and I could not put my name to a Motion which I helped to draft because I was not a Voting Representative.

    We have already done this in Scotland and changed our Constitution or Standing Orders to allow this – ALL Scottish Liberal Democrats have the right to vote and I think this should be the same at Federal level.

    The Voting Representative system ONLY works if there IS discussion between the Local Party Members and the Voting Reps before the Conference and our views sought. This does not happen in my Local Party – at no time was I asked for my views nor have I ever felt that my opinions on any matter have been noted. Federal Reps seem to me to be a little “club or clique” all on their own, but my main gripe is that I cannot put my name to a Motion – others have to sign it on my behalf and I don’t think that this is fair.

    I think that the Federal Conference should do as we have in Scotland – make it a level playing field for ALL Party Members.

    I have already voted for Susan and I hope that she will pursue this idea for the future of our Party, because I think that the Voting Representative system has had a lot to do with Party Members feeling dissociated with the Leadership – we are the grass roots and should be consulted prior to Federal Conference where our Policies are made supposedly by the Members. If this is only done through the Voting Reps where is the discussion?