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7 July 2015

Does it matter that Liz Kendall’s not a mother? The row reveals more than you think

A blog by Helen Goodman, an MP supporting Yvette Cooper, has triggered a small row. But it's what's not in the blog, rather than what is there, that's the real problem.

By Stephen Bush

Does it matter that Liz Kendall isn’t a mother? That’s the latest mini-controversy to erupt in the Labour leadership race. Helen Goodman, MP for Bishop Auckland, has triggered a row with an article for the Huffington Post which contains the following gem:

“Much more important to me than being an MP and shadow minister is that I am a mum. I have two children and although they are both grown-up (supposedly), once a mum, always a mum. I remember the difficulty of having to work and arrange childcare. Getting them up and ready for school, nagging them about their homework, which strangely seems to get harder as they get older, then battling to get them to bed at a sensible time – a task.

That’s why I’m backing Yvette Cooper to be the next Leader of the Labour Party. As a working mum, she understands the pressures on modern family life.”

Team Kendall – their candidate has no children and has recently split up with her partner, the comedian Greg Davies – feel that it’s a veiled dig at their candidate, and they’re not alone. “That’s a bit on the nose, isn’t it?” texted supporter of Andy Burnham shortly after the blog went live.  Kendall’s allies have been on the attack on the airwaves and on Twitter.

Are they right? Well, the blog is certainly insensitive and somewhat silly. Cooper’s been on the frontbench since 1999, she’s had jobs across government, is the only trained economist in the race wand was the first ever woman to serve as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. That she’s a working mum is definitely impressive but it seems a little odd that Goodman has opted to lead with it.

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But is it a deliberate tactic on the part of the Cooper campaign to attack Kendall? No, of course not. It’s Goodman’s blog. Cooper’s aides were surprised at the fuss yesterday, and the rest of the piece is incredibly worthy stuff about Cooper’s achievements. 

Bluntly, the Cooper campaign know they’re trying to win an election among Labour activists: people who write letters about the use of the word “Miss” in newspapers and are permanently outraged on Twitter about one misused word or another. More specifically, they understand that their path to 51 per cent of the vote runs through the second preferences of Kendall backers.

But it reveals the biggest blindspot in the Cooper campaign: they haven’t thought as much about their supporters’ interventions as either the Burnham or Kendall campaigns have.

Just today on The Staggers, the Burnham camp have wheeled out one of their greatest assets, Rachel Reeves. In an article that ranges across the crisis in Greece and the coming budget, it gives a glimpse of what a Burnham-Reeves Labour party (regardless of who wins the deputy race, Reeves is likely to shadow George Osborne in his capacity as Cameron’s deputy and as Chancellor of the Exchequer) while giving a gloss of gravitas to Burnham himself. (That Reeves, a widely-respected figure on the party’s right, is prominently supporting Burnham, may also help poach a few vital second preferences from Kendall’s voters.)

And last week, John Woodcock launched an attack on both Burnham and Cooper as “Continuity Miliband”. The blog is unlikely to do much for Woodcock’s employment prospects after the leadership election is over, but if there is any remaining hope for Kendall’s longshot bid it is in convincing  Labour activists that she is the only candidate with any chance of getting to Downing Street in five years’ time.

Ignore the obvious questions about “Parent-gate” for a moment (Will it upset Labour activists? Yes. Was it deliberate? No.) and ask this one: it looks increasingly likely that the final round of the Labour leadership will be between Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper.  That means that Cooper’s campaign has two tasks: get more first preferences from Andy Burnham, and attract second preferences from Kendall.

If someone had cut out Goodman’s first three paragraphs, what in the ones that followed would have accomplished either of those objectives?

And that’s far more troubling than a misconceived paragraph here or there. 

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