What's wrong with Yvette Cooper's campaign?

Yvette Cooper should be a major player in the Labour leadership campaign. But she's struggling to define herself in a race dominated by Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall. What's going on?

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Why does Yvette Cooper want to lead the Labour party?

That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way, I’m genuinely baffled. After nearly a month of announcements, speeches and interventions, I’m still no closer to working out what Cooper’s pitch for the party leadership is.

I’m not alone. Prominent supporters of the Shadow Home Secretary are similarly confused. “I’m not sure her heart is in it” is a common refrain. One insider describes the race thus far in unflattering terms: “Liz is setting the agenda, Andy is seriously seeking to address his weaknesses, Yvette appears to be running  a frontrunners’ campaign without being the frontrunner.”

More sympathetic observers point out that, less than a month ago, her husband lost his job, suddenly and unexpectedly, while her party went down to a shocking and heavy defeat.

To make matters worse, her campaign is distinctly lacking in pheremones. It feels as if her aides were asked to dust off the Ed Miliband playbook, but instead of reenacting his successful bid for the party leadership have disinterred his disastrous pitch for the general election.

Just as with the Miliband operation, the campaign seems to be putting its faith in organisational innovation: a network of regional organisers will get out the vote at a local level and never mind the national press or burgeoning Labour blogosphere.  But they don’t seem to have learnt the lesson from Miliband’s defeat: a well-organised ground game doesn’t help you if you have a product no-one wants to buy.

Away from the ground game, the Cooper air war feels troublingly similar to Miliband’s. Today was a condensed version of Miliband’s ill-fated themed weeks, which would always begin with party spinners telling friendly bloggers that the issue of the week was the NHS before wheeling out Douglas Alexander the next day to give a lecture on global threats.

And so it was with today, a series of interventions designed to set out the Cooper stall. It began with a call to break Labour’s last glass ceiling and put a woman at the top of the party and ended with largely platitudinous guff about the future, topped off with an extra dose of rancour on immigration.

Frankly, any Labour member looking for platitudinous guff is well-served by the rest of the candidates. There is, certainly a large and potentially election-winning number of Labour activists who do agree that it is, in fact, “time for a woman”. It’s less certain that those voters, deciding between the pro-migration Liz Kendall and Cooper, will opt for the candidate who argues that Miliband’s Labour party was “too squeamish” on immigration.

Behind the scenes, there may be bigger problems. MPs have been surprised to be canvassed not by Cooper herself, but by proxies – the same hands-off approach that helped sink David Miliband – while the campaign seems better at talking about its achievements than actually acting them out.

Of course, there is still more than enough time for the Cooper campaign to start getting a coherent message across. The frenetic pace of the Kendall campaign and the flawless roll-out of the Burnham operation can’t continue indefinitely. At some point, probably, either the Kendall insurgency will run out of steam or Burnham will make a mistake.

But if that doesn’t happen, and without a major rethink, Cooper’s rationale for becoming Labour leader looks like the explorer George Mallory’s argument for climbing Mount Everest: “because it’s there”.

The unlucky Mallory froze to death on the mountain’s northern face. Without change, Yvette Cooper will also never reach the summit. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.