The Shadow Home Secretary's bold stance on the refugee crisis and attacks on Corbynomics make her the left-winger's biggest threatby / September 4, 2015 / Leave a comment
This summer, like last, Yvette Cooper has spent much of her time on trains. Last year she was enjoying an inter-railing trip with her family across Europe. Now, she’s criss-crossing the country in a bid to give her campaign for the Labour leadership a final boost. While last year she paid homage to one of her favourite films, the Sound of Music, on a themed cycling tour around Salzburg (she reportedly went as far as creating costumes from curtains for the occasion), this year she has played a starring role in an election which has provided us with unexpected political thrills.
After Labour’s shattering election defeat in May, the party has found itself in the grip of what some have described as an “existential crisis”. The presence of the unreconstructed left-winger Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership race might have inspired 168,753 new members and registered supporters to sign up to vote in the contest, but it has exacerbated the divisions between the centrists and the hard-left of the party, with the latter believing only a lurch to the left can save Labour from electoral oblivion. That is not a view shared by Cooper, who sits firmly in the Brownite camp alongside her husband, the former Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls. This faction believes in the need to achieve power to put principles into practice, a theme stressed by Gordon Brown during a speech on the leadership in late August. “The best way of realising our high ideals is to show that we have an alternative in government that is credible, that is radical and is electable,” he said.
When I meet Yvette Cooper, the woman who is fighting to become the Labour Party’s first female leader, she is en route to a campaign stop in Colchester. This week has seen her deliver her best performance of the campaign—stealing a jump on her rivals with a speech on the refugee crisis which has received rave reviews. In becoming the first politician to break the apparent taboo of not commenting on the UK’s response to the Europe-wide crisis, Cooper has helped pile pressure on the government, who she accused of “political cowardice”, to do more to help those fleeing political turmoil in the Middle East.
She seems genuinely impassioned on this issue, a trait which has been notably absent from her campaign until now. She defends her decision to intervene, claiming that as Shadow Home Secretary she has advocated a fresh approach for the past two years. “We’ve taken just over 200 people as part of the Syrian refugee programme that the government only set up under pressure. This is no good. That’s the reason for saying this now, I’ve seen the crisis escalate and nothing is being done,” she said.
The impression is of a politician who is finding her voice and becoming comfortable with the idea that she might end up leading her party, and possibly even become Prime Minister. She has attempted to seize the radical mantle from Corbyn, stating that her bid to smash Labour’s glass ceiling is more revolutionary than her rival’s seemingly “subversive” politics. Her eyes light up at the thought of tearing strips off David Cameron at the dispatch box, a task she says she would “relish”. Where is the woman who was called “tepid” by John Humphrys during a monstering on the Today programme back in July? This Yvette Cooper is far from bland, bloodless and robotic. With 13 years of government experience, she is clearly itching to put her party back into power: “being in opposition sucks” she told The Sun earlier this week.
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Her fighting spirit is much in evidence. Both her and her aide repeatedly stress the fact that around a third of those who registered have still to cast their vote. At the meeting in Colchester, there’s an almost party-like atmosphere. She speaks fluently with no notes and fields questions with ease. At the end she is surrounded by supporters eager to grab a selfie. If she’s tired of going through the same routine on an almost daily basis she shows no signs of it.
After a summer of Corbynmania that has seen the 66-year-old, who struggled to scrape together enough support to enter the race, emerge as the frontrunner—the realisation seems to have dawned on the Cooper camp that drastic action was needed. The most recent YouGov opinion poll, published on 10th August, gave Corbyn a 32-point lead over his then nearest rival, Andy Burnham. But since her speech on the Middle East crisis the bookies have slashed the odds on a Cooper victory from 10/1 to 5/1, putting her in second place behind Corbyn.
The government’s decision to change tack and accept thousands more refugees has further legitimised her bid, and her recent performance adds weight to the endorsements from traditional media outlets such as the Guardian who cited her “down-to-earth feminism” and ability to mount a serious challenge to Osborne’s austerity policies as their reasons for backing her. She got another boost last week when focus groups commissioned by Newsnight/Ipsos Mori revealed that former Labour voters named Cooper, who they viewed as strong and principled, as their preferred choice for leader, while Corbyn was seen as “a bit of a hippy” who could bankrupt the country.
All of this has undoubtedly helped put the smile back on her face after the duel blows of the election defeat and Balls suffering the humiliating loss of his seat. But is it enough to change the outcome of a contest which many assumed was already over? My theory, which I put to her is that she might benefit from “Shy Cooper Syndrome”—that, as in the general election when Shy Tory voters were possibly responsible for the pollsters’ predictions being so far out; people who say publicly they are voting for Corbyn might have a change of heart and back a candidate with wider electoral appeal. All the research that has been done so far into Labour’s defeat points to the need for the party to win back socially conservative voters who in 2015 switched their allegiance to Ukip or the Tories. “On 8th May I vowed I would never believe a poll again,” said Cooper. “Everyone now seems to be focusing on a small number of opinion polls on a subject which is difficult to poll. As for the bookies, Paddy Power doesn’t have a hotline to the hearts of Labour Party members… When people are sitting there with the ballot paper in front them I hope they think not just about how to feel good right now, but also how to do good in five years time.”
Cooper has been praised by pundits for her impassioned attacks on Corbyn’s “People’s Quantitative Easing” policy, which would involve the Bank of England printing more money to pay for infrastructure projects. This stance provided her with her finest moments during both the recent C4 and Sky News husting debates. Describing it to me as her “biggest disagreement with Jeremy” she stated that the economy would “fall apart” if Corbyn’s QE was imposed and accused him of offering “false promises”. She also defended her refusal to apologise for Labour’s public spending record, despite Andy Burnham (who was second in command at the treasury when the financial crash hit) offering a grovelling mea culpa earlier in the campaign. “This is a trap George Osborne wants to set, he wants us to say that Labour’s public spending was the problem,” she said defiantly. “It’s not right to apologise for investing in hospitals or schools. That was what not caused the problem, nor did it make us too weak to fix it.”
When pushed to lay out her own economic plan she highlights the need to solve Britain’s productivity puzzle, a problem she claims the Conservatives have neglected to address in government. Instead, she argues, George Osborne is engaging in an ideological shrinking of the state—promising public sector cuts of 40 per cent, including £450m of cuts to further education and delays to tax breaks to ease the cost of childcare, areas where investment would clearly boost productivity. “George Osborne’s approach is all about political gimmicks. He changes his position every few months… If we don’t get productivity growth, we are not going to get an increase in wages, we are not going to get increase in tax receipts and we are not going to get the deficit coming down. That productivity failure is a huge problem at the heart of George Osborne’s numbers,” she said.
The other weapon in Cooper’s artillery is her pitch as a working mum who wants to bring a modern, feminist approach to Labour. It’s an effective strategy that humanises her in the eyes of the selectorate. Almost all the women in the audience that I speak to in Colchester cite her gender as a key factor in their decision to support her. Her rhetoric is sprinkled with vague references to “feminist economics”, which translates as a bid to change existing structures to better accommodate people’s parenting, or other caring, responsibilities. “Childcare is now as important a part of our national infrastructure as trains or buses or skills,” she said.
That all sounds great, but it’s Corbyn who has won favour with feminists for his much-lauded “Women’s Manifesto” which pledged to close the gender pay gap and end the cuts to public service jobs which hit women the hardest. Cooper has long campaigned on these issues alongside deputy leader candidate Stella Creasy. Does she feel frustrated that it’s Corbyn’s campaign that is increasingly associated with these issues? “Women-only carriages was not my policy,” she said wryly, referring to the first notable cock-up by the Corbyn campaign. The suggestion that the introduction of segregated carriages would be a sensible response to a 25 per cent rise in cases of sexual harassment on public transport was widely mocked on Twitter and in the media. “I don’t think we should make it women’s choice to be modest and shut themselves away somewhere safe rather than being able to sit anywhere they like”. But it must irritate her that these issues get more attention when a man champions them? The shutters are down again, we’re back to the unflappable, dispassionate Cooper we’ve seen too often during this campaign. “It’s good Jeremy is saying all the things I’ve been saying for a long time… but in the end it’s about putting [principles] into practice… that’s why I have talked about policies such as universal childcare. It’s the practical thing we can do which will change women’s lives that are the most important.”
It was bold of Yvette Cooper to declare herself a radical, a word not previously associated with this quietly ambitious politician. In person she seems almost liberated, as if she knows this is her last chance to save not just her candidacy but the Labour Party she has served loyally for 18 years. Her straight-talking approach is refreshing—she declares the decision to abstain on the Welfare Bill in late July a “mess” that as leader she wouldn’t repeat. But, even if the idea of her as a radical is still a bit of a stretch, she is certainly credible. If Corbyn does win and she sticks to her promise of not serving in his shadow cabinet it will be the Labour Party’s loss.