Liberal Democrat party members are unusually lucky with the current contest for President of the Liberal Democrats. It is rare for there to be two credible, high-profile candidates standing at the same time but this time there is a real choice between two such people.
Some differences between Susan Kramer and Tim Farron were obvious from the start of the campaign and are swaying some voters, depending on their views on matters such as how important (or not) it is for one of the party’s most prominent posts to be held by a woman, whether an MP has enough time to do the job, whether a current MP from outside London or an ex-MP from London is more outside the Westminster bubble and so on.
However, two further differences between the candidates have come out clearly during the campaign. First, there has been a touch of political difference between the two. Contrast Tim Farron’s oft-repeated joke about how two women made him a Liberal – his mother and Margaret Thatcher – with Susan Kramer’s answer when quizzed about her political by Liberal Vision: “I’m quite comfortable being seen as an Orange Book liberal”. It would be wrong to exaggerate the difference here for, as Susan herself said earlier in the interview, “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.”
The big difference that has emerged is in Tim Farron and Susan Kramer’s view of the job of Party President (a question on which Lib Dem Voice surveyed party members in September). Susan’s campaign has placed a heavy emphasis on listening – using both her allocated all-member emails to promote a survey asking members for their views and deploying phrases such as “holding the ring” to describe how she sees the role fitting with the different parts of the party. For Tim listening to members has got a mention too, but his emphasis has been on presenting the party’s case. In a recent interview in Liberal Democrat News, Susan started her answer on how she saw the role as “Very much being a voice for the grass roots of the party” while Tim talked first about “presenting a distinctively Liberal Democrat case”.
A Kramer Presidency would be primarily about getting the views of Liberal Democrat members heard within the party; a Farron Presidency would be primarily about getting the views of Liberal Democrats heard by the outside world. Both are admirable aims and either would, I am sure, do some of the other. But there is a genuine difference of focus here.
Both Susan Kramer and Tim Farron have answered in detail ten questions I posted to them, and their answers have been published in full today (see Susan Kramer’s answers and Tim Farron’s answers). Their answers reinforce the point that the two would go about the job in different ways.
They share much common ground, for example both supporting the party having a long-term commitment to the abolition of tuition fees, neither showing much enthusiasm for full blooded implementation of the rest of the Bones Commission’s recommendations and both wanting to take a key leadership role on addressing the low proportion of Liberal Democrat councillors who are female.
However through the answers Tim consistently more forcefully presents his own view whilst Susan stresses the importance of listening to others. So on the example of whether the rules for party internal elections should be relaxed to allow more campaigning both respond warmly, but it is Tim who strongly agrees while Susan emphasises she wants to talk to candidates and voters (party members) first before deciding.
Whatever view you take on the role of the Presidency, the fact that Tim and Susan are laying out such different approaches is very welcome – it means the choice we have in the election is a meaningful choice between two people, both of whom would do an excellent job but each of whom would do a different job from the other.