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Why Labour MPs are starting to get excited about Yvette Cooper

In the invisible Labour leadership race, the former Welfare Secretary is in pole position. 

Just because there isn’t a vacancy, doesn’t mean there isn’t a contest. Although, until Theresa May’s shock decision to call a general election, most Labour MPs expected Jeremy Corbyn to lead the party into the next election, his would-be successors have all been quietly profiling for the top job. Think of it as the invisible Labour leadership contest. 

The last few months have been exceptionally good for Yvette Cooper, partly because several of her rivals had bad ones. Dan Jarvis wrote a long essay that was largely poorly received in the parliamentary Labour party, and, to compound the error, called up one MP who criticised the piece on Twitter to complain.

Keir Starmer, regarded by many as the favourite in the next contest, whenever it comes, has had a poor few months thanks to his perceived mishandling of the Article 50 debate. His decision to welcome the government’s ersatz concession of a “vote on the final deal” caused consternation among MPs. (I explain in more detail why the government’s concession wasn’t worth anything here.) “Bewilderment at why Keir jumping up and down like he’d won the lottery,” said one former frontbencher summing up the mood among their colleagues. It added to two complaints that is increasingly widespread among MPs: that Starmer has “no politics”, and that having been elected just two years ago, he has yet to acquire the necessary experience.

Although his position among party activists was probably strengthened by quitting the shadow cabinet to vote against Article 50, in the short term, it has done considerable damage to Clive Lewis’ prospects of getting enough nominations to make it onto the ballot. He is no longer the natural first choice of most of the 14 MPs who gave Corbyn their nominations out of shared belief rather than to lent nominations. But he has no reach into the PLP’s centre, let alone its right flank. There is also a feeling in the PLP that Starmer’s struggles in the Brexit brief show that the candidate should not be someone who has “only been an MP for five minutes” in the words of another member of the 2015 intake.

It’s not only that Cooper has become the consensus choice in the PLP through the failure of others: she is also seen to have used the role of Home Affairs Committee Chair well, with a series of effective questions. She also put Theresa May under the cosh well during the liaison committee – when all the select committee chairs meet the Prime Minister – and has delivered two effective questions to May at PMQs. What one MP described as a "bravura" performance at the PLP meeting yesterday has further increased the buzz around her among MPs. 

Her allies from last time are, for the most part, still behind her. One former Cabinet minister told me that “she has really decided to go for it now, and having had the last time to think about what she stands for, will be a much better candidate”.

But even less enthusiastic MPs, and opponents from last time around, are coming round. There is a strong feeling in the parliamentary party that whatever happens, Labour’s next leader must be a woman, and not just among the Women’s PLP. “I don’t think it’s time to talk about who the next leader is, whoever she may be,” one male MP said a few months back, “But it has to be a she, that I’m absolutely certain of.”

Others feel that what will be needed when Corbyn stands down is a safe pair of hands who will allow the various ginger groups – such as Labour Together and Red Shift – to continue developing ideas while a safe pair of hands steers Labour through tough times.

Another – a woman, but no natural supporter of Cooper – put it like this:  “I think it needs to be first of all, a sister. Second, someone who has been around, and isn’t going to fuck things up. And third, someone who can unite the PLP. So that sort of leads to Yvette, I guess."

Some caveats: a lot of the rising support for Yvette Cooper has been based around the idea that Corbyn might stand down before an election in 2020. Corbynscepticism is a broad creed in the parliamentary Labour party and my guess is that, if and when Jeremy Corbyn departs the scene, its internal unity will collapse pretty quickly. Although the Labour membership is fluid, immigration remains an important issue to many members and one that Cooper is on the wrong side of. But here's the thing: that only matters if the next Labour leadership election is contested. At present, no other candidate is even getting close to Cooper's levels of support in the PLP. If there is a heavy defeat on 8 June, I wouldn't be shocked if the parliamentary Labour party gives the leadership to Yvette Cooper by acclamation, just as they did with Gordon Brown.

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

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.