Yvette Cooper at the Labour leadership GMB hustings. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Yvette Cooper delivers unruffled performance at Press Gallery lunch

The Labour leadership candidate – often criticised for her lack of personality – appeared relaxed and amusing at a lunch for journalists.

Yvette Cooper, who was regarded as the best performer at last night's Labour leadership hustings, again impressed before the Westminster Press Gallery this lunchtime. The shadow home secretary didn't make any policy waves but she was relaxed, amusing and resonated authority and competence (despite a bad cold). 

Cooper devoted a significant section of her address to the Greek crisis, reminding journalists that Ed Balls isn't the only trained economist in her household. The Labour leadership candidate, who, like her husband, won a Kennedy Scholarship to Harvard, warned that the EU and the British government were displaying the same complacency that was shown at the start of the financial crisis. 

"There seems to be a growing view about how to handle Greece that is similar to the kind of view that we saw in the US Treasury over Lehman Brothers bank, where the view seemed to be that we can somehow cut them off, cauterise the problem by letting them go. And we saw what happened - the US Treasury thought that they could do that over Lehman Brothers and in fact it was catastrophic and caused huge instability in the financial markets. So my warning to the government and across Europe is do not do a Lehman Brothers over Greece, do not think that you can simply cauterise a problem without there being huge financial and economic instability. We need a long-term solution to Greece, this has been delayed for too long". She recalled that as an economics journalist at the Independent in the 1990s, she always believed that Greece and Italy should not join the euro. 

On the Labour leadership, Cooper stuck to her strategy of positioning herself as the centrist candidate between Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall. She warned against trying to "rerun the 2015 election" (a swipe at Burnham) and against trying to "rerun previous elections" (a swipe at the Blair-esque Kendall). It is an approach that leaves her well-placed to win second preference votes should either of her rivals drop out.  

But aware of the charge that she has simply defined against other candidates and failed to offer a positive vision, she emphasised the importance of "new ideas" and that Labour was successful, as in 1945, 1964 and 1997, when it owned the future. She frequently referenced the digital revolution and the transformation of the labour market, and the need to treat business as an ally, rather than an enemy.

As one of two female candidates in the race, Cooper also, unsurprisingly, emphasised the potential benefits of making her Labour's first female leader. "David Cameron has a woman problem ... Maybe we should give David Cameron an even bigger woman problem," she said. Many in Labour have long believed that the Prime Minister and whoever succeeds him (most likely Boris Johnson or George Osborne) would find it far harder to dismiss a female leader. While there are obvious cards that the Tories could play against Andy Burnham ("the union man", "Mid-Staffs"), it would be tricker to pin down Cooper. Jokes about Ed Balls would simply appear crude and misogynistic and his enforced exit from parliament means this subject is even more off-limits.

Cooper's biggest obstacle, however, remains her past service in government. As the sole candidate elected in 2010, Kendall is able to argue that only she can offer "a fresh start". But Cooper handled the "baggage" charge well, asserting that "this is a tough job and it needs experience" and adding: "I make no apology for having been the minister who ran a department with a £100bn budget, for having brought in the Future Jobs Fund and for having been the minister who rolled out Sure Start". When asked how she felt about comparisons between herself and Hillary Clinton ("cool"), she again used her experience to her advantage, recalling that she worked on Bill Clinton's campaign in 1992 and sported the slogan "I'm backing Hillary's husband". Asked whether Balls would join her on stage if she won the leadership, she replied that he would not and attacked the "outdated" and "uncomfortable" role of the political spouse. 

"I had already when Ed [Balls] stood last time in the 2010 leadership election ruled out ever joining him on stage as a political wife because I think we should be long beyond the era of expecting any politician to have the political wives standing next to them," she said . "Certainly the Labour Party Conference has always been uncomfortable at the way in which the spouses were expected to play that role ... I think that role in terms of the party conference is an outdated one."

Among Labour MPs, it is increasingly Cooper, not Burnham, who is regarded as the true frontrunner. After her performances in the last 24 hours, the political world at large will be watching her candidacy far more closely. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.