The Daisy Cooper interview: "Our only focus is winning as many seats as possible"
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper, photographed by Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Daisy Cooper thinks the time has come for the Liberal Democrats to change British politics; and says it will only come if the party takes the Tories head-on. She talks to Tali Fraser about what the party really stands for, its stance on Europe, and why she’s approaching the election with an athletic mindset. Photography by Louise Haywood-Schiefer
For Daisy Cooper, Liberal Democrat success will have its genesis in Tory failure. The Liberal Democrat deputy leader, 41, senses an “overwhelming appetite for change”, and adds: “We want to play our part in that change in terms of winning as many seats as we possibly can off the Conservatives.”
She is critical of the Conservative party from policy to ethos – and says the “starting point” to her outlook on the next election is a feeling that “the Conservatives have broken so much in this country”.
Cooper points out her party is in second place to the Conservatives in around 80 seats across the country – and there are “a lot of areas where it might not look immediately obvious that we are in contention but … we may be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat”. One example is in Surrey, with Michael Gove’s Surrey Heath constituency, as well as other seats like Theresa May’s in Maidenhead, which found themselves with Liberal Democrat-run councils following the local elections.
She talks about the Conservatives, but does not make any attacks on the Labour party, and does not even mention taking seats from the opposition.
It was, however, her frustration with a Labour government, specifically the performance of Hazel Blears on one of the Sunday morning political shows, defending the detention of terror suspects for 48 days, that prompted Cooper to get involved in party politics during her late 20s. She joined the Liberal Democrats that afternoon.
What, then, would she make of the idea of a Liberal Democrat-Labour coalition if there is no clear majority at the next general election?
She doesn’t give a direct answer. Instead, Cooper compares her mindset going into an election to that of her brother, a Team GB ironman triathlete, on competition day.
“In terms of what happens after the general election, I’ll be honest, I’m very much here to focus on the finish line. If you were an athlete, with an athlete mindset, you’d be focused entirely on getting to the finish line because you know that everything you do between now and then determines what comes next. That’s exactly the head space we’re in.”
She adds: “Our only focus is winning as many seats as possible.”
A former charity worker who only became an MP in 2019, she was a critic of policies passed during the Liberal Democrats’ time in the Coalition government. She marched against tuition fees, tweeted against the NHS and Social Care Bill from a hospital bed, and spoke out against the bedroom tax.
The Conservatives have broken so much in this country
Does the idea of going into another coalition, but this time with Labour, not bring back any old concerns for her?
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s in the hands of the voters,” Cooper says. “In terms of what the outcome of the next general election is, there are some things within our control and some things outside of our control.
“What is within our control is how hard we work between now and the general election. Then, you know, whatever follows, follows but as far as I’m concerned, it has to be ‘eyes on the prize’.”
What that prize is to the Liberal Democrats, and whether it involves becoming the third biggest party in the Commons, is unclear. Cooper says: “It is quite difficult to put a number on it.”
A significant focus for the party, she says, is linked to her role as the Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson for health and social care.
“I think it should go without saying that every party is going to have to completely overhaul its policies on social care, because our NHS and social care system are facing different worlds compared to where we were at the last general election.”
One of the policies Cooper highlights is their plan to get 8,000 more GPs into the health service, alongside tackling dentistry through reforms to the NHS dentist contract, and recruiting more local NHS dentists – all of which she says is “incredibly overdue”.
Social care, which makes up the other half of her brief, she describes as often getting “the Cinderella treatment”.
The Liberal Democrat leader, Ed Davey, has been open about the caring responsibilities he has dealt with throughout his life, that serve as a driving force for him. Part of the social care plan involves raising the pay of social care workers by at least £2 more an hour than the minimum wage, funded by increasing the tax on online gambling providers’ profits to 42 per cent from 21 per cent.
“It is a way of demonstrating that there is a way of raising money from big organisations that may have done particularly well during the pandemic,” Cooper says.
“The Liberal Democrats have consistently shown where there is a will, there is a way. If you want to do something, there are ways of raising taxes on big corporations that have done incredibly well, that are raising millions, if not billions, of pounds in revenue and profit, which could be taxed to help ordinary folk who are struggling, working incredibly hard and paying a very high rate of tax already.”
This comes back to a much-asked question of the party: what do the Liberal Democrats really stand for?
Cooper’s answer is pithy: “That every individual should be able to live their lives as they choose and the decisions should be made as close to them as possible.”
She also sets out five values that the Liberal Democrats stand for: internationalism; environmentalism; pro-business; pro-public sector; and pro-equality.
But towering above all, at least in the minds of voters, is the United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe. The Liberal Democrat policy is to seek to rejoin the single market.
Following the government’s announcement that the UK is to rejoin the EU’s flagship scientific research scheme, Horizon, is there anything else she would like to see movement on?
“We would like the UK to start looking at really rejoining various programmes [including the student exchange scheme] Erasmus, so that you’re going to get exchanges and experiences across the EU.”
But Cooper claims the “tweeting diplomacy” engaged by some in the UK government has “eroded a lot of the trust that existed” between the UK and the EU, meaning that any movement would require “negotiations about having a closer working relationship that start with building trust”.
She adds: “That’s something that you can’t really put a timeframe on.”
Does she really see a future in which they could cherry-pick what they would like to rejoin and get the UK into the single market without first tackling the issue of migration and border regulation? It’s at this point that her answers become increasingly vague.
“It’s very hard to say what the starting point would be in the future,” Cooper says.
“I think if we were ever going to rejoin the single market – and we’d have to do it from a position of strength – we need to have a strong economy in this country, so that we’re in the best negotiating position possible. At the moment our economy is in a real, real mess so it’s incredibly difficult to say how or when that would happen, or how quickly it would happen.”
In that case, would the discussions around border controls come then? It remains unclear: “I think all of that is at a future point in time. There’s a long way to go to build up to that level.”
A more immediate issue for the Liberal Democrats is the prospect of the upcoming by-elections – one in Mid Bedfordshire, triggered by the resignation of former Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, and one in Tamworth, now that Chris Pincher has resigned after losing his appeal against a suspension for groping two men during his time as a government whip.
With each by-election the party takes a very local approach. Does Cooper believe the Liberal Democrats have still held on to a national pitch and outlook?
“Absolutely,” she hits back. “In every single part of the country, we’re hearing that the NHS and cost of living are the two biggest issues. So at the national level, we were the first party to call for the windfall tax, we were the first party to call for the energy price hike to be scrapped, we were the first party to expose the scandal that the government is allowing water companies to pump sewage into rivers with impunity. We can get these local issues from our local campaigning and give them a national platform.”
Cooper has been to Mid Bedfordshire three times, with leader Ed Davey visiting four times. There are reports of a potential non-aggression pact between the Liberal Democrats and Labour, so as not to split any anti-Tory voting in the blue-wall seat, but she insists there are no informal pacts: “Honestly, there aren’t any deals and there won’t be any deals.”
In Mid Bedfordshire specifically, Cooper says, the Liberal Democrats are treating it as “a two-horse race” between themselves and the Conservatives.
“Even when Labour came to power in 1997 in this huge landslide and won tonnes of seats, they still didn’t win Mid Bedfordshire. So it was a natural cap on how many votes Labour can win in that area,” she adds.
In Tamworth, though, Cooper recognises that they have to be sensible with directing their resources: “So while we’ll definitely fight every by-election that comes, we will be focusing our resources on Mid Beds.”
Another way she sees the Liberal Democrats as distinct from the Conservatives is with their attitude towards planning and housing, especially social housing.
“I think Liberal Democrats across the board want to see more social housing,” Cooper claims, “because in its absence the entire housing stock and the whole housing sector just kind of grinds to a halt.”
Cooper, who is also co-chair of the Leasehold and Commonhold Reform APPG, says she sees the rest of the planning and housing system in this country as “completely broken” and run “almost entirely by big developers and not by communities”.
There are ways of raising taxes on big corporations that have done incredibly well
She is quick to mention the greenbelt and that “of course, there will always have to be some rules” to look after it: “It is there for a reason after all and it is to be the lungs by which new communities can breathe.” But Cooper is happy for there to be targets for housebuilding, especially social housing, although they do need to be matched with local interests.
She wants local authorities to be given regulatory powers to determine the balance between homes available for local people to rent and buy, alongside properties available with tourism: “Every local authority is best placed and, as Liberals, we believe in the devolution of powers and localism. It should be for local authorities to be able to regulate that.”
Cooper adds: “Most of the frustration we hear is that local residents often want housing; they want their children to be able to live nearby, to stay in the city where they grew up, or when they’ve studied, but they’re so frustrated that when the proposals come forward, often for thousands and thousands of new homes, and it doesn’t come with the GP surgery, or it doesn’t always come with the number of schools or with the improvements to the roads.
“If you think about it, why would people embrace the idea of new housing if it says we’re going to spread the thin public resources we have even thinner? That’s really where the system doesn’t work.”
What does she make of claims that the Liberal Democrats are the party of nimbys (“not in my back yard”)? She hits back at the government once more: “The Tories often attack us as being nimbys and they would, wouldn’t they, because they know that their planning system is broken.”
Cooper sees the Liberal Democrats as the party with the ideas to fix that but, as she recognises herself, it is all down to the finish line as to whether the public will agree.
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