Baroness Susan Kramer, former MP for Richmond Park and now Liberal Democrat Peer, meets me in the lobby of the House of Lords and offers to show me around. The deep sense of tradition and the ostentatious displays of wealth and power seem to contrast with her friendly, relaxed demeanour, as she casually jokes with me whilst taking me around her place of work…
Back in her office, things get more serious as I begin to probe her about the Liberal Democrats’ role in government. First off, I ask whether in retrospect she thinks entering into coalition was the right thing to do.
“We really had no choice,” she begins. “If you take your mind back to May 2010, we were looking at serious political instability, and the only option which could provide genuine leadership and decisive government action was a stable long-term coalition. There are perhaps times when that degree of certainty is not necessary, but at the time it was very clear that significant steps were required to get a hold on the economy, and it had to happen quickly. “
So does she think Coalition has been a positive experience for the Liberal Democrats?
“When I go out knocking on doors and speaking to people it seems that many of them actually quite like coalition. They have a feeling that a conservative government that they were quite anxious about has behaved much better because of the Liberal Democrat partnership. More has happened in line with liberal values than we’ve seen in decades, for example do you really think conservatives alone would be look at something like gay marriage? I don’t think that would have been on their agenda.”
“It’s also been important in terms of establishing the credibility of the party,” she adds. “I always used to hear people say: ‘we might vote for you because we like some of the things you stand for, but the reality is you’re never going to be in government.’ Well, now we’ll never hear that again!”
The notion of credibility prompts me to ask about tuition fees, an issue which seems to have seriously dented support for the Liberal Democrats especially amongst students. Susan gives me a slightly weary look which suggests she has been asked this question many times before.
“When it became part of our manifesto, it was very much tied to Vince Cable’s mansion tax which would have raised over £3 billion a year. However, there was no way that was going to be accepted in the coalition. So if we were going to provide free education for students, we would have had to make big cuts to welfare or the NHS, because there’s almost nothing else in the budget that would be big enough for the kind of money that would be needed. “
She is also keen to point out that both the Conservatives and Labour planned to raise tuition fees significantly, and she argues that despite taking much of the flak the Liberal Democrats actually managed to have a positive influence.
“You have to bear in mind that the Conservative decision would have undoubtedly been no cap whatsoever on fees, and very little of the graduate contribution structure or bursaries for people from disadvantaged families. In the current system most students won’t actually pay it all back, it will only be the highest earners, and they will effectively help to pay for others who haven’t got as well paid jobs. That actually seems to me quite progressive.”
Throughout the interview Susan repeatedly emphasises how the Lib Dems have managed to restrain some of the Tories’ more right-wing tendencies. She mentions that perhaps their biggest achievement has been taking people earning £10,000 or less out of income tax, when the instinct of the Conservatives would have been to cut from top-rate taxpayers.
I inquire then whether perhaps the Lib Dems biggest failure has been to get their message out more effectively to the public.
“The party’s never been hot on PR.” Susan admits. “It’s one of those things: people say they don’t want to hear PR, they want to be able to see the facts, but then when you don’t do PR they don’t listen! Also because we’re a small party we tend to focus on the doing rather than the telling about the doing; and in politics you almost certainly have to do both.”
She also argues that her party is often misrepresented due to political affiliations in the media.
“If you look at the owners of newspapers they tend to be either very strongly right-wing in their views, or very dedicated to the Labour Party. They can’t see progressive unless it has Labour stamped on it as well. It’s something Tony Blair took great advantage of. He could do almost no wrong for a long period, no matter what he did and how right-wing it was.”
Significantly, Susan feels that neither side has forgiven the Lib Dems for entering into coalition.
“Right-wing editors look at us and think: but for you we could have had a real right-wing government. Cameron would have had to jump to the tune of people who wanted to get us out of Europe, to significantly cut taxes for the better off, to virtually eliminate benefits and slash back public services. And then those on the other side think linking with anyone other than Labour betrays the country. It hurts us, because we hardly ever get a fair crack at the press coverage. But that’s life, I suppose.”
Susan remarks that this political cleavage between right and left is far less prominent in the House of Lords, which tends to be more consensual.
“I occasionally go back and listen to the Commons, and I think they’re behaving so badly, I should send them to their rooms! I’m getting a Lords attitude towards it. I’m really impressed by how constructive the lords is, how open it is.”
Nonetheless, Susan is a passionate advocate of democratic reform of the House of Lords. She recounts how she felt slightly hypocritical when she recently had to give a talk to a Chinese delegation about democracy.
“The first thing I had to say was ‘I’m not elected, I’m appointed by a party leader.’ And of course, that made perfect sense to them! That sort of says it all.”
But why does she think reform is so important? In part she thinks people often underestimate how much power the House of Lords actually has in shaping legislation.
“When you’re an MP the demands of your constituency are huge, so doing all the detailed work on legislation is nigh on impossible. This means the legislation arrives at the Lords in an incredibly undigested condition, so the positions that individuals take can have a significant impact on the outcome. The Commons works out the general principles. But as they say the devils in the detail, and the detail is in the Lords.”
I finish by asking about the prospects for reform, and whether it might happen any time soon.
“All the major political parties are signed up to reforms, but apart from the Lib Dems it’s not seen as a priority. If the public were engaged with it then it might happen, but right now the public is preoccupied with more pressing issues, such as getting food on the table, which I can fully understand. Those in government think we don’t have the time or energy to take on this battle right now.”
The main battle would be with the House of Lords itself, as Susan puts it “the turkeys aren’t going to vote for Christmas.”
“The overwhelming majority in the House of Lords are convinced that currently it is full of exceptional people, and that anyone elected is bound to be of lower quality,” she explains.
“We failed just last week to get a change where we could just address colleagues on the floor of the chamber as the noble lord or the noble lady, rather than having to remember whether to address them as Duke, Earl, learned, gallant, reverend etc. If you can’t get something as minor as that through the House I don’t see how you can get real reform.
“I also think we as a nation are fairly conservative and we like our traditions,” she concludes. “But I suspect if people understood the influence of the House of Lords they would probably be out on the streets screaming for reform.”