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.

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Leader: The divisions within Labour

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change.

Labour is a party torn between its parliamentary and activist wings. Since Jeremy Corbyn, who this week appealed desperately for unity, was re-elected by a landslide last September, Labour has become the first opposition in 35 years to lose a ­by-election to the governing party and has continually trailed the Conservatives by a double-digit margin. Yet polling suggests that, were Mr Corbyn’s leadership challenged again, he would win by a comfortable margin. Meanwhile, many of the party’s most gifted and experienced MPs refuse to serve on the front bench. In 2015 Mr Corbyn made the leadership ballot only with the aid of political opponents such as Margaret Beckett and Frank Field. Of the 36 MPs who nominated him, just 15 went on to vote for him.

Having hugely underestimated the strength of the Labour left once, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will not do so again. In the contest that will follow Mr Corbyn’s eventual departure, the centrists could lock out potential successors such as the shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey. Under Labour’s current rules, candidates require support from at least 15 per cent of the party’s MPs and MEPs.

This conundrum explains the attempt by Mr Corbyn’s supporters to reduce the threshold to 5 per cent. The “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make the ballot in 2007 and 2010) is being championed by the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Jon Lansman of Momentum, who is interviewed by Tanya Gold on page 34. “For 20 years the left was denied a voice,” he tweeted to the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, on 19 March. “We will deny a voice to no one. We face big challenges, and we need our mass membership to win again.”

The passage of the amendment at this year’s Labour conference would aid Mr Lansman’s decades-long quest to bring the party under the full control of activists. MPs have already lost the third of the vote they held under the electoral college system. They face losing what little influence they retain.

No Labour leader has received less support from his MPs than Mr Corbyn. However, the amendment would enable the election of an even more unpopular figure. For this reason, it should be resolutely opposed. One should respect the motivation of the members and activists, yet Labour must remain a party capable of appealing to a majority of people, a party that is capable of winning elections.

Since it was founded, Labour has been an explicitly parliamentary party. As Clause One of its constitution states: “[The party’s] purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.” The absurdity of a leader opposed by as much as 95 per cent of his own MPs is incompatible with this mission. Those who do not enjoy the backing of their parliamentary colleagues will struggle to persuade the voters that they deserve their support.

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change. Rather than formalising this split, the party needs to overcome it – or prepare for one of the greatest defeats in its history.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution