(Daisy Cooper was the first to respond to the questions I posed in my earlier Presidential post, and here are her answers in full after the cut. I’ve formatted them as she had them in the Word document she sent but not edited them in any way, but please tell me if anything looks wrong. You can, of course, ask any questions about her answers in the comments.)
Why you, and not the other three?
I’m a campaigner, a reformer, and I have a vision for the party. I believe that I’m the only candidate with three vital ingredients that will enable me to deliver change:
An independent and informed voice for the members
As we’re in government now, and could be again after May, we need a President that is independent of the government, the parliamentary party and the leadership more than ever before. I would passionately advocate the priorities of the Liberal Democrats, what we would deliver if we were in government on our own, and our vision of transforming society, without having to defend a personal voting record.
First-hand experience of the party
I have in-depth first-hand experience of many constituent parts of the party. I stood as a Parliamentary Candidate in Suffolk Coastal, a non-target seat, in 2010. We achieved an 8% swing against a 1% national average and I led a team to jointly win the Penhaligon Award for engaging members. So I know from experience that it’s possible to raise money and recruit members in every part of the UK. I’m now a membership officer in Lewes, Norman Baker MP’s constituency, where I can see the difference that a strong Lib Dem Council Group and a Lib Dem MP can achieve together. A few years ago I attended ALDC’s Kickstart training as a newbie – this year I returned as a mentor and trainer. Elected to the party’s Federal Executive and the Management Committee of the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors (ALDC), I have scrutinised LibDem HQ and other party bodies, and understand the need for governance reforms. I’m also a ‘go to’ LibDem person for a broad array of media – having been approached and interviewed a number of times by Radio 5 Live and BBC local radio, and having secured coverage for this campaign, in the Sunday Times and the Independent.
Facing down critics
We also have an image problem. I’m 32 and prepared to fight for the values of our party for the next 50 years. We have some amazingly talented individuals in the party as well as some exiting new talent – I want to showcase our best campaigners, to show that we have a bright future. I’m also living proof that some Lib Dem activists supported the party going into coalition, vehemently opposed some of the compromises in government, and have remained in the party to campaign vigorously for our values.
Clear vision for change
We’ve been written off before, so I’m ready to face down our critics right now. We must re-build our local government activist base following the damage of recent years, and the fight starts now. We must first re-assert our commitment to local government in its own right, not just as a stepping-stone for winning Parliamentary seats. Liberal Youth, Lib Dem Women, LibDem LGBT+ and Ethnic Minority Lib Dems (EMLD) should be recruiting grounds for 2015 Council candidates, and non-target seat PPCs should understand the role they can play to identify new candidates and re-elect existing Councillors (two of my ideas that are being pursued by ALDC). In the next few months, strategic seats should be supported to provide ‘on the job’ campaigning experience as an incentive to volunteers to travel to the seat from across the region. This would mobilise volunteer support for winnable Parliamentary seats whilst also providing skills and training that activists can take back to their local parties to fight and win their own local elections in 2015 and beyond. Up-skilling our volunteers on our Connect campaign software and assisting less developed seats to manage VIP visits (now that Peers have been encouraged to engage in these) are essential. The voice of Councillors must be institutionalised in party structures – both standing Committees and informal groupings. And, as an ALDC mentor and Management Committee member, I know that ALDC training and mentoring is a ‘lifeline’ to many of our councillors and campaigners: I would continue to advocate for greater investment in this.
What do you believe in and what would you do differently from others?
What I believe in
I abhor the corrosive concentration of power – whether in the state, the unions, the media, or corporations – and I believe that the political system should enable individuals to take back that power and use it, giving them influence over the decisions that affect their lives. This is the ideology of ‘community politics’ and it’s more relevant today than it ever has been.
Many people feel – and in many respects are – powerless to effect change in their every day lives. So it’s no surprise that UKIP with its empty promise to ‘take back power’ from Europe and ‘give people control’ over who comes into the country, is so appealing. It’s a powerful and emotional argument. But theirs is a false promise, ours is not.
In policy terms, community politics means we should radically shift power away from central to local government. It requires effective regulation to break up the concentration of power whether in the energy market, the press, or in the political system itself. And it means giving workers greater ownership rights at work, so they can achieve fair wages and fair practices. Giving individuals real power and control over their day to day lives will help us win hearts and minds – it’s also how we’ll transform our society. Giving every person the opportunity to shape their own life is a powerful rallying cry and we must embrace it.
Accountability – the missing ingredient of our internal democracy
The Party needs to reform and I have a plan as to what needs to happen. In a number of different contexts our processes have been found wanting – it’s not always clear who is responsible for taking decisions, and to whom those decision-makers are accountable. Yet nature abhors a vacuum so powerful (and often effective) personalities have filled it: accountability for taking decisions (or for not doing so) has been sorely lacking. The results of this have been very damaging. It has left processes open to abuse, which in turn has left members and the party vulnerable. This cannot continue.
Both the 2008 ‘Bones Commission’ (Party Reform Commission to the Federal Executive) and the 2013 Morrissey report (Report into the processes and culture of the Liberal Democrats) identified an almost black hole of accountability, but neither managed to fix it. Our spaghetti system of processes fails our members, and fails the party.
As an active member of the party’s Federal Executive, I have banged the drum demanding to know who is accountable and to whom, on a whole range of issues from the management of disciplinary processes, to the design of the campaign strategy for the European and local elections. The well-meaning but ill-judged email to members saying “where we work we win” as our elected officials and their committed staff found themselves out of office, and out of work, reeling and exhausted from a bruising election, is a case in point.
There is a complete mismatch between the FE’s mandate to “direct coordinate and implement” the work of the Federal Party, and its levers for doing so (which are almost non-existent). There is currently no ‘whole party strategy’ against which FE can monitor progress, but there should be. FE appoints the CEO but does not have the power to manage her/his performance – it should. The CEO her or himself must have the power to take decisions for which s/he can be held accountable. There are no criteria against which FE members are elected. We could consider introducing a system in which FE candidates run for election for one or more portfolios – such as membership, campaigns or governance – in order that they can demonstrate their suitability for scrutinising these areas. Regional executives must be freed up from party administration, so they can focus on finding candidates and building campaigning machines. And then there is the governance tension between the FE and the English Party: it is the English Party that is responsible for managing finances, mediating in disputes, determining grants to party associations and borrowing money, yet members expect FE – through its elected members – to be accountable for these vital decisions. Responsibilities, powers and accountability must be aligned if our party bodies are to be effective. Professionally, I have a strong track record of driving through governance reforms notably at the Commonwealth Secretariat – a highly politicized environment, with competing agendas and vested interests – I’m confident that I have the stomach and ability to drive it forward here. I have some ideas on how we might do this, and I’m completely open to more. The process of finding solutions must be open, consultative and voted on by Conference. But what I know for sure is that accountability is the missing ingredient of our internal democracy and without it, we can’t move forward.
What I will do differently
After the elections, we must put our house in order as I’ve suggested above, but we must also lift our eyes and take up a bigger cause. The UK has a strong liberal history – from tearing down the corn laws and launching Liberal welfare reforms, to today’s achievements on lifting the poorest out of tax and equal marriage. But with the rise of the right, today it is liberalism itself that is under attack. In the 1920s, the liberal party went into decline – I want to help lay the foundations now, so that the 2020s mark the start of a Liberal Revival.
We need bold radical ideas. Maybe we could work with communities to reverse the Beecham railway reforms where desirable, creating veins through which the lifeblood of our economy can travel? Maybe a targetted programme to work with the 10 most deprived communities in the UK, injecting our liberal values, and enabling them to transform themselves into ‘leap-frog communities’, freeing those most in need from ‘poverty and ignorance’? We need to ask big questions too even if we don’t have the answers right now – as the world’s resources become increasingly scarce, how do we protect people’s freedom and choice? Can we incentivise more sustainable behaviour on the necessary scale to hold authoritarian solutions at bay?
As President, I would launch an ambitious scheme to engage with new people and communities across the UK. We would promote ourselves as the natural home for anyone who wants to transform their community or change the world. We should embrace new people, and be an incubator for new ideas. We should work together to launch a new Liberal Compact – a vision for the UK rooted in our values. Saying what we want to achieve in the next 5 years is necessary but not sufficient – we must engage people in a conversation about what it means to be a liberal democrat – small l, small d – in the 21st century, and engage them in the political journey to deilvering it.
We can learn from our South African sister party, the Democratic Alliance, which has established a scheme, part leadership academy and part social network – to which they recruit new members from marginalised communities, providing mentoring and support for them to become political leaders at every level, whether in the party, in their community or through their professional life. The network has established a formal system of mentoring and support. We should draw on the experience of this successful scheme.
What mistakes do you think the party has made since the start of the coalition?
If you had been President when they were being made what would you have done to avoid them?
There have been some mistakes, but given that the coalition is the first in 80 years, it’s hardly a surprise. The important thing is that we can avoid them in future.
The loss of ‘short money’ (money given to parties in opposition to cover their costs in the absence of a civil service to support them) was an enormous blow. But it was lost because it was not factored in to the coalition negotiations probably because of human error after a long and exhausting election campaign. Hand on heart, I don’t think I would necessarily have picked this up but safe to say, we’ve learnt that lesson!
The impact and speed of the cuts on local government could have been better thought through, and I’d like to think I would have called for greater consultation behind the scenes with ALDC and Council colleagues.
Tuition fees. When the issue was being debated, Vince Cable set out two options: increase tuition fees or reduce the number of people going to University. Had I been President at the time, I would have argued vociferously that we should have chosen the latter and combined it with the launch of our apprenticeships scheme. If there had not been support for this, I would have argued that the party vote against the legislation. As it happens, all I could do at the time was go on the march.
The Tories ability to manipulate the legislative timetable to push through unpopular and barely scrutinised legislation – such as that on the NHS reforms – could in future perhaps be held at bay by insisting on having a “no surprises” clause in the coalition agreement. The clause could say that the Lib Dem reserve the right not to vote for legislation where the timetable is accelerated without our agreement. We cannot abrogate responsibility for voting for these pieces of legislation, but such a clause could help minimize the risk of voting for ‘bad law’ in the future.
I also think we got it very wrong on the bedroom tax. There were warning signs about its potential impact, both from within the party and from outside. I’m pleased we’ve changed our party position to one where disabled adults would be exempt and no-one would have their housing benefit cut unless they are offered a suitable smaller home. But this tax has already brought harm to vulnerable individuals and has damaged our ‘caring credentials’. I’m concerned that these warning voices weren’t heeded earlier. As President I would make the strongest representations to the leader and the parliamentary team on issues like this that matter so much to the membership and threaten our core values and credibility.
I also think the ‘Rennard scandal’ was managed badly. The fact that everybody involved felt let down by the process points to the need for urgent reform. The mistakes themselves were made a long time ago in not dealing with the allegations properly when they were first made. We must implement the Morrissey report in full, but I believe that we also need to take further steps to re-build confidence in our systems for dealing with complaints.
There have been some positive changes to come out of this: I was one of the first to say publicly (Radio 5 Live) that a criminal standard of proof was too high, and I’m pleased that a process is underway to consider reducing the standard of proof to a civil standard. A pastoral care officer has been appointed and wording has been included into the constitution against bullying and harassment.
I and others on FE are pushing to ensure that the Morrissey ‘one year on’ report, scheduled this Autumn, takes place and is conducted thoroughly. As President, I would see it through.
Notwithstanding, there’s still a lot of work to be done. It’s clear to me, from my work with Cllrs and activists trying to navigate the party bureaucracy, that processes are still too complex, they involve too many people, and no-one is accountable for decisions in any meaningful way.
As President, I would want to flesh out some ideas for consideration by Conference. These could include:
Aside from mistakes, we have an impressive list of Liberal Democrat achievements in government and it is these that I intend to shout about from the rooftops in the coming months.