Bet on Yvette? Is Yvette Cooper really the frontrunner in the Labour leadership?

The bookmakers make Andy Burnham the favourite. But Labour MPs of all stripes think that Yvette Cooper will be Labour's next leader.

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“We needed to do everything right, and they had to do everything wrong,” one Ed Miliband staffer once reflected on their against-the-odds victory against David Miliband.

That’s the challenge facing Liz Kendall’s longshot bid for the Labour leadership – she has to play a near-flawless game, and the frontrunner has to make a mistake. So a dire, largely lifeless affair like the televised hustings that played out tonight, helps the frontrunner – and hurts Kendall.

The question is, just who is the frontrunner in the Labour leadership race? According to the bookmakers, it’s Andy Burnham. But increasingly, it’s Yvette Cooper who is favourite to win in Labour circles.

It’s why she, having been neck-and-neck with Kendall in the nomination race for so long, broke into a commanding lead among MPs. One MP from the party’s right, who considered both candidates, plumped for Cooper as the best candidate to stop Andy Burnham. “I want to back Liz,” they said to me, “But I don’t want to be playing the violin while the ship sinks and Andy Burnham becomes Labour leader.”

But it’s not just her supporters – or even those MPs who regard her as a better alternative than Burnham or Kendall. “If Yvette is allowed to get throught the whole contest without taking a position on anything then she will win and it will be a disaster” was the despairing verdict of one staffer. One of her contemporaries from the New Labour years says that “she cannot make decisions…but I tell you this, she’s going to win the leadership election”.

Why? In part, it’s because of the way Labour’s preferential voting system works – the expectation is that she will be everyone’s second choice: Burnham supporters will prefer her to Kendall, Kendall supporters will prefer her to Burnham, and Corbyn’s supporters will split evenly between Burnham and Cooper. But it’s not just mechanics.

Cooper – who started the campaign with a hefty war chest already in place – has, in the words of one MP “snapped up everyone half-decent with a contract that expired on the 8th of May”. Sheila Murphy, who as north-west regional director oversaw one of Labour’s few successes at the election in Wirral West, was snapped up. Luke Holland, head of media in Labour’s key seats, has also been brought in. And Caroline Badley, who orchestrated Gisela Stuart’s against-the-odds wins in Birmingham Edgbaston, has also been hired by the campaign.

Are they right? Well, it’s certainly a persuasive case: on paper. Cooper’s somewhat soporific campaign certainly isn’t offending anyone, so she should easily pick up the second preferences she needs, if she comes second.

There’s just one problem with it. Ed Miliband’s 35 per cent strategy, of squeaking into power with its 2010 “core” and a smattering of Liberal Democrat defectors was persuasive on paper. But on the day itself, the 35 per cent strategy turned out to be a 31 per cent strategy.

There’s no reason to suspect Cooper’s “through the middle” strategy will do any better. People don’t necessarily vote in rational ways. Liberal Democrat voters, disgusted with the conduct of that party, handed the Conservatives a bumper crop of seats. And there’s no reason to believe that Labour members think that Burnham is a great threat to Labour’s chances of winning a majority in 2020 – or, indeed, that supporters of Kendall think Cooper is a lesser evil than Burnham. My instinct, from talking to Kendall’s supporters, is that they are far more likely to divide 50/50, assuming that Cooper can beat Kendall into second place – itself a rather large “if”.

And if that happens, the frontrunner is still Andy Burnham.

 

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.

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