"I run a mean board when we're canvassing" - Sal Brinton interviewed in this month's Ad Lib Magazine

March 5, 2015 5:12 PM
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats

New Liberal Democrat party president Sal Brinton talks to Charlotte Kelloway about her plans for the party, her commitment to diversity in politics and the coming General Election.

From a young age, it was clear the new Liberal Democrat party president, Sal Brinton, was destined for a career in politics. Inspired by her cousin, Mary Stocks - a suffragist and one of the first Labour women life peers - a young Sal realised that, with a hefty dose of determination, she could do whatever she wanted in life. "I learned early on that it was fine to debate different views," she smiles.

It wasn't long before the eight-year-old Sal was writing postcards to a journalist family friend in China who had been imprisoned by the Mao regime. "I understood that he was very isolated and was being imprisoned simply because he was trying to tell the truth about what was happening," she explains.

It was this dedication to human rights and civil liberties that saw Sal join the party 40 years ago. "The preamble to the Constitution has it absolutely right - we are a party that believes in liberty, freedom and tolerance," she says.

With the encouragement of former MEP Andrew Duff, Sal stood as a councillor when her youngest son started school. It didn't take long before she was elected, receiving a bouquet of flowers from her Conservative father (former MP Tim Brinton) with a note reading, "Congratulations, dammit".

Since then, Sal has held a host of positions, from grass-roots campaigning to sitting on Federal Committees, standing as a candidate four times, chairing the Diversity Engagement Group, and founding the Leadership Programme - all invaluable experiences that she can bring to her new role. She also has a wealth of experience from her professional life outside the party, supporting organisations that are going through difficult times, and turning them around if needed.

"It's no secret we're in the most challenging election we have ever faced as the Liberal Democrats," Sal says - adding that she remembers the Liberal Party coming back from more difficult times. "I have no doubt we will do better than the pundits are saying, because they don't understand how popular our sitting MPs are. It's really important we give our top winnable seats as much support as we call can in the coming week," she says.

However, Sal is clear she wants to see change in the way the party operates, as did the other presidential candidates, whom Sal describes as very worthy fellow contenders.

"After the General Election, we need to make sure we respond to the Morrissey review that's just come out, ensure we have our disciplinary processes up and running effectively and look at some of the constitutional changes," she says.

Sal also feels passionately about diversity, and ensuring the party becomes more reflective of the people it represents. Indeed, the all-female-candidate presidential campaign is a good example of how things are changing: "It was not an all-women shortlist ordained by the party - only women stood," she says. "Wearing my diversity hat, I was really encouraged by that, because the party has now got another woman in a senior role. We've got some excellent female MPs and candidates, but to have a woman President as well is quite a strong message."

Although the party is making progress with the number of female candidates standing in winnable seats, Sal believes there is still more to be done. Having set up the Leadership Programme, which offers support to candidates from under-represented groups, she would like to see more minority, LGBT and disabled candidates selected in the future.

As the first wheelchair user who is president or chair of a national political party, Sal has a keen interest in disability matters. She highlights a range of issues for wheelchair users that most people are completely oblivious to, such as using the London Underground or boarding a bus when a pushchair is in the way. "The Government can do more to improve accessibility for disabled people," she notes. However, one area in which she is pleased to see progress is the introduction of the Access to Elected Office for Disabled People Fund, which makes grants available to help with the barriers disabled candidates face: "The fund is allowing disabled candidates to compete on the same terms as everyone else."

Although Sal hopes she will be able to return to using a walking stick part-time thanks to new medication, she is adamant her wheelchair won't hold her back from activities such as canvassing. "I run a mean board - people have to catch up with my wheelchair when we're canvassing in groups," she laughs.

As a former candidate herself, Sal knows the challenges candidates face in the election campaign. "One of the big things is stamina. The final weeks are the last mile of the marathon, when every joint in your body is screaming at you but you know the end is almost in sight," she says. "It's about being sure of what the tasks are, that the team is in place and that you have the right people around you. Win or lose - and I've lost four times (twice very narrowly) - I would always say it's a fantastic experience representing the party and working with your local community."

With only a few weeks to go until the General Election, Sal strongly urges all members to get in touch with their nearest seat to see if they can help out. Let's make this last mile count!