“Congratulations, damn it!” This is the note Sal Brinton’s father, Tim, the former Conservative MP for Gravesham, sent with a bunch of flowers to his daughter when she was first elected as a Liberal Democrat councillor in 1993.
“Engagement in politics is more important than having rows in the family over what you believe in,” Brinton chuckles after telling me this story. “I think that’s the one thing we agreed on!”
And there has been plenty more in the Lib Dem peer’s career to congratulate her on. Following her work in floor management at the BBC having studied at the Central School of Speech and Drama, Brinton has long been an influential figure in liberal politics. She reached the House of Lords in February 2011, and has recently been elected party president. She replaced Tim Farron MP in this role at the beginning of the year, defeating two other candidates and winning 10,188 votes in the final result.
Farron – the media-friendly imp popular with the left flank of his party – treated the role as a mouthpiece for the Lib Dem party faithful, often straying off-message to the delight of many of his fellow Lib Dem MPs frustrated and constrained by coalition with the Tories.
It’s clear from talking to Brinton, who is not even 20 days into the post when I meet her, that she is also not prepared to let alliances with other parties obstruct the party’s liberal voice. The peer, who has been key behind the scenes of Lib Dem politics throughout this parliament, blames the party’s leadership for being a little slow on the uptake regarding distancing itself from the Conservatives.
“I think it took both parties in government a good couple of years to understand that differentiation was important,” she muses. “I always say coalition is a contract not a marriage. And the problem is that, in 2010, the wider public perceived it as a marriage. Actually we don’t have to get on, what we have to do is deliver the contract, which was the Coalition Agreement.”
And whose fault is that?
“I think it was Nick and David Cameron,” she replies, frankly. “[But] you have to go back a step to look at what the media was saying the day after the election: ‘If we don’t have a coalition within three days, the money markets are going to collapse, it’s going to be a complete disaster’ . . . So of course [there was] relief for the two of them getting into the Rose Garden – ‘We’ve got an agreement we can work’. The problem came thereafter.
“I suspect any coalition in the future is going to make the differentiation clear from the start. We’ve had the problem of being the first coalition in living memory, and of course we were trying to make that work.”
Brinton has already adopted the straight-talking, voice-of-the-party element of the presidential post Farron made so distinctive. Yet the job will surely be a little different considering this is an election year. Brinton nods enthusiastically; she is clearly ready for the fight.
“Yes, yes. The pace of things changes, and for any political party, not just us, making sure that all that works completely smoothly for all candidates is significant.”
Brinton has already begun ringing every single selected Lib Dem candidate in the country in an effort to boost morale. The party continues to lurk at the bottom of the polls, and has even been overtaken by the Greens in certain surveys. It lost its deposit for the 11th time this parliament at the Rochester and Strood by-election in November last year. Brinton remains ferociously upbeat.
“The key message is, if I talk to a candidate or other senior people do, make sure that you pass the word on. It’s like handing a torch on to say, ‘actually we aren’t dead, there’s a lot happening, there’s a lot good that we’ve got to talk about in government, and yes there have been things that have been very difficult for us’. But if people only hear about the bad side, and the side that the other parties want you to hear about, we will be missing a real trick.”
Brinton has had to step back from being in the Coalition Working Group now she’s president, and claims she has, “no preference at all” about who the party works with next. However, she does tell me that the biggest political influence in her life, going back to her childhood, was a Labour life peer: her cousin, Baroness Mary Stocks.
One of the early Labour life peers, Baroness Stocks was a Radio 4 regular on programmes like Any Questions and one of the few well-known female names in politics.
She was a Suffragist and Brinton describes her as, “the only person who could beat my dad at the Sunday dinner table political argument . . . [she was a] woman who just used to argue my father off the table”.
Brinton, in turn, argued, “over the dinner table with my dad about capital punishment – this was when I was a school kid – the importance of Europe, and Apartheid. Those were the three big things”.
She continues: “Her [Stocks’] influence on me was showing women can do whatever they want: don’t be constrained by what people say you can and can’t do.”
How, then, does Brinton feel about the Lib Dems’ pretty appalling record on female representation in parliament? The party only has seven woman MPs, five of whom represent marginal seats and could be voted out in May. Also, Nick Clegg has failed to promote a woman to the cabinet in the nearly five years he has been Deputy Prime Minister.
She tells me representation of women is an area she has worked on “behind the scenes for some time”. She began giving female candidates specific training back in 2001, when the Campaign for Gender Balance was formed. This was then merged in 2013 with Women Liberal Democrats to form Lib Dem Women. The idea is to provide special support, “because as a party we don’t like the idea of all-women shortlists”.
Yet Brinton, not content with the low number of women MPs the Lib Dems returned at the last election, says another such meagre result could lead the party to rethink its stance on positive discrimination. She says the party has agreed, “that if we were as bad after the 2015 election, we would revisit the issue of all-women shortlists”.
Another blight on the party’s record regarding women has been a sex scandal that broke in 2013, in which it was alleged that the senior party figure Lord Rennard had serially sexually harassed female Lib Dem staff members. Nick Clegg’s office had been aware of the claims for years, and some of the women involved confided in party figures, such as the then equalities spokesperson Jo Swinson MP, reportedly as early as 2007.
Swinson and fellow Lib Dem women were criticised for being “silent” around the time of the scandal, and women have left the party over its slow response to the story. For example, one complainant, Susan Gaszczak, a Lib Dem activist and a Federal Conference Committee member, quit the party in 2014.
Rennard, following a seven-month suspension of his party membership, was allowed back into the party in August 2014 following a “No Further Action” police decision. He gave a rather half-hearted apology for any “inadvertent” invasion of women’s “personal space”.
Part of Brinton’s job is to ensure that the Morrissey Report, triggered by the allegations, and other legal constitutional changes are fully implemented. She tells me the Morrissey Report is “not completely implemented, but we’re on the road, and we know what still has to follow”.
Her challenge now that “most of the structural things have changed” is to achieve a “cultural change” in the party. Brinton admits that the Lord Rennard case was “the big wake-up call” for the Lib Dems, and sees the way to change the culture is “to challenge things that are inappropriate. We’ve got to stop them happening. They have to be reported. We then have to support the people who are reporting them, we have to believe what they’re saying, and only that way can we change behaviour. And that is now happening”.
She reveals that she has spoken to two of the complainants since, and knows all four of them. “The party would love the women who left the party to come back into it. I need to be able to reassure them that the party has changed,” she says.
“I know that I want them to come back when they’re ready, when they feel reassured that things have changed. And it’s not going to be instant. Lord Rennard complied with what the English party asked him to do, and on that basis, he was allowed back in.”
Even so, Brinton has clearly been forthright behind the scenes with the Deputy Prime Minister about the Lib Dems’ women problem: “Let’s say Nick and I talk about representation of women in this party on a regular basis,” she smiles.
She also veers away from her party’s leadership on the fateful arrow that shot down the Lib Dems’ bird of liberty: tuition fees. Brinton worked in higher education after leaving the BBC and pursuing a career as a venture capitalist in Cambridge. She became bursar of a women’s college in Cambridge, where she settled with her husband, in 1992.
“It’s a two-part story,” she says of her party’s broken tuition fee pledge. “First of all to say, I signed the NUS pledge, and had I been in the Lords by the time the vote was taken, I would’ve rebelled.”
And although praising the higher level of bursaries and grants for low-income students this government has brought in, her preference is for a graduate tax:
“There are Treasury rules and international treasury rules that need to be changed before we can make that happen. So one of the things I’ve been doing is lobbying [Chief Secretary to the Treasury] Danny Alexander – the poor man knows about this – to say ‘let’s start that debate’, because we can’t just go on pretending that the graduate tax is easy.”
After 2010 only saw a handful of Lib Dem women in parliament, Brinton called for the party to set up a Leadership Programme, tasked with getting women, ethnic minority candidates, people with disabilities, and LGBT candidates selected for the top seats. She says the results of this so far have been “very positive” and points out that her party is one of the first to “help this broad area of underrepresentation”.
However, she does admit that a disabled candidate has not been selected to represent a really winnable seat yet – something for which she will be campaigning hard. Disabled representation in parliament is a crucial campaign for Brinton, who has rheumatoid arthritis – a long-term musculoskeletal disorder – and has been in a wheelchair full-time for two and a half years now. Currently it is affecting her wrists, which are in splints, and her throat.
She laments the lack of disabled access in the creaking old Palace of Westminster, and also finds it frustrating that the modern atrium-cum-office building, Portcullis House, is poorly designed for parliamentary staff who use wheelchairs. “I have missed votes because I’ve been at a meeting in Portcullis House when a division has been called of both Houses, and there’s only one lift that goes to the lower ground, and I cannot get into it because everyone’s going,” she says, exasperated. “Now that is a fundamental architectural problem, in the same way that some of the access doors are very heavy.
“Perhaps one of the things I can do as a high-profile, disabled politician, is to make people start to review what they’re doing.”