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The New Statesman Politics Interview — Yvette Cooper

On the road in the West Midlands for the local election campaign, he shadow home secretary talks abo

A bright spring day, and Yvette Cooper is rushing from a train at full tilt, weighed down by bags, phone pressed to her ear, waving. She only just made that train and we only just make the next one. Her morning has been chaotic since her husband, the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, was summoned to the Today programme to discuss benefit cuts, leaving the house at dawn and his wife with the task of preparing their three children for school. She describes a frantic hunt for uniforms strewn around the house before a sprint to school, just sneaking through the gates in time.

Cooper's life outside politics, I suspect, is always like this, a scramble to be on time, to make it to the next appointment intact. At one point during the day she receives a text from a friend saying that she's been calling him by mistake. Apparently she's been doing this for weeks. Instead of fixing the problem with the phone, she makes the last dialled number her own, so that when she unwittingly presses the "call" button in the future, she will only ring herself.

Later on she concedes that she is burdened by a sense that she's not doing anything as well as she could. "Sometimes," she says, "it feels like a triumph to make it to the end of the week." But in her job, if not her life, Cooper is renowned for being measured and controlled; disciplined, some say, to the point of dullness. She does not readily stray from the party line.

Today is typical: a race across the West Midlands, from Nuneaton, to Atherstone, to Coventry, to Leamington Spa; from high-street local election campaigning to tea-drinking with pensioners to a radio interview to a tour of a shopping centre. Along the way, she shares everyday tales of cuts and chaos. My time with her is a disjointed affair: we discuss the Labour leadership in a floral-wallpapered café; David Cameron's sexism and the perils of Twitter in the back of a car; and Yvette's childhood passions on the pavement opposite KoKo's nightclub, Leamington Spa, as we're watched over by a policeman.

In Atherstone, we are met on the high street by a group of Labour activists who have set up a stall to gather signatures against local police cutbacks. One of them gives Cooper a biscuit, having heard her on the radio doing a mock AV-style vote for biscuit brands (first preference: the chocolate digestive). She is touched, and laughs. At a nearby café she sits down with a group of pensioners and patiently listens to their concerns.

She is good with people, friendly and attentive, appearing genuinely interested by a security guard's long and winding explanation of a shopping centre's multi-camera CCTV system. Awkward moments occur only when a pensioner offloads personal gripes - the wayward youths in the park, the cutting of the bus service - and Cooper replies with a honed policy analysis, replete with statistics, which is met with bafflement.

When Cooper is talking policy, she is comfortable and well trained. Too deep, too fast: it could be written on her forehead. I hear her use the same lines about police cuts - almost word for word - on me, a local journalist, the campaigners and pensioners. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has proposed 20 per cent cuts to police budgets over four years: a huge reduction, but one that has been overshadowed by the cuts proposed for the National Health Service, universities and councils. The scale and the pace of the cuts will inevitably hit the front line, says Cooper, and thus push up crime figures (which, she points out, fell by 43 per cent during Labour's years in government).

A lot of this is lost on the pensioners, however, who simply want the reassurance of more bobbies on the beat. It seems easy for her to sit with this group of old people, sharing their worries, removed from the pressures of government. Under Alan Johnson, the Home Office had, after all, promised 12 per cent cuts - less than the coalition's 20 per cent, but still substantial. Using delicate euphemism, she concedes to the group that "efficiencies and savings" are necessary.

But ultimately she doesn't have to specify how her cuts would work or who they would affect. She repeatedly refers to Johnson's 2009 plan, which, she says, promised savings without having to cut front-line staff. But how can she make that guarantee? She can't, saying that "decisions will be taken and that is always going to be a matter for chief constables".

Being tough on law and order was central to Tony Blair's success and Cooper is keen to imply that the coalition is overly relaxed about tackling crime. "I do not think it is right-wing to be tough on crime and on the causes of crime," she says, rolling out Blair's old catchphrase. Sadiq Khan, shadow justice minister and a close ally of Ed Miliband, recently wrote an article in which he suggested that the hardline, Blairite approach on crime had been misguided and had done little to reduce reoffending rates. Cooper publicly disagreed with him, but now seeks to smooth over any rift: "I think Sadiq was right to say we should be doing more on rehabilitation . . . but I don't think the party was uncomfortable with saying we should be tough on crime and antisocial behaviour."

On counterterrorism, her main challenge to the coalition is on funding: "If you need additional surveillance, for example, do you have the necessary resources to deliver it?"

She is equally uncompromising about immigration. "You've got to have controls and you've got to have robust controls," she says.

She worries that the government's plans for controlled immigration aren't "workable". In response to Cameron's controversial 14 April speech on the subject - which elicited an attack from Vince Cable and an accusation from the British National Party that the Prime Minister had stolen its ideas - Cooper seemed to suggest that Cameron hadn't gone far enough. "He has made very big promises about the level of net migration he will achieve," she said in a statement, "but he hasn't set out workable, transparent policies to deliver it."

Does this rhetoric not clash with Ed Mili­band's revamped Labour - a party that seeks to reverse some of the civil liberties infringements witnessed under the previous government? "Ed's approach is about openness, a willingness to debate things," she replies. "We're not going to become trampled into views simply because we held them in the past. On the other hand, if you look at some of these crime issues, people are concerned about police numbers. I don't see that as a right-wing approach. I think it's reflecting what communities are concerned about."

Tweet success

Cooper doesn't get recognised on the street. She is slight, small and dressed - as if in direct opposition to Theresa May's eye-catching power suits - in blue trousers, a beige jacket, flat shoes. To thwart unwanted encounters, she says, she avoids looking people in the eye, but she is also still oddly unknown outside Westminster, the downside of being a serious politician more interested in policy than publicity. When I ask a couple on the high street in Atherstone if they know who she is (Cooper at this moment is surrounded by a gaggle of Labour activists and being photographed by a local newspaper), they look at me blankly. "No idea," they say, and move on. She tells me a story about going to the Pride of Britain awards and having to suffer the indignity of entering the ceremony ahead of Cheryl Cole. The crowd was going wild, screaming for Cheryl, entirely oblivious to the presence of a senior politician just in front of the preening X Factor host.

Cooper was born in 1969, daughter of a trade unionist and a teacher, granddaughter of a miner. After studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, she went to Harvard and the LSE. Her first jobs were in politics, as economics researcher to the shadow chancellor John Smith and then adviser to Harriet Harman when she was shadow chief secretary to the Treasury.

After a brief stint at the Independent, she was elected the MP for Pontefract and Castleford in 1997 and became a junior health minister in 1999, at the age of 30. Her private life has always been intertwined with politics - she shared a flat with Ed Miliband in the early 1990s and says now that they've been "friends for a long time". (Did he do the washing-up? "Probably more than I did. Although he never cooked.")

Cooper married Balls in 1998 in Eastbourne. The couple have three children; Cooper was the first minister to take maternity leave. Although she was an MP first (Balls was elected in 2005), Cooper has a lower profile than her husband - something of which she is clearly conscious.

“Do you tweet?" she asks me at one point, as we make our way back to the car after a radio interview. Half-heartedly, I say. Does she? She shakes her head. "Ed tweets," she says. Giggling, she recounts how, when they were watching old reruns of Top of the Pops on television the previous weekend, Brotherhood of Man's "Save Your Kisses For Me", a Eurovision winner from 1976, had come on. Ed had tweeted to his 22,000 followers: "Yvette just got in from Nottingham - she now dancing to Brotherhood of Man (turns out she knows the dance routine) OMG . . ."

Cooper rolls her eyes. There's a danger when only one half of a couple tweets; that person has control of the narrative. I suggest that Ed is more comfortable with pushing himself forward, sharing himself with people. "He's just faster on the new technology than I am," she says. But Twitter, social media, the media in general all demand openness; the willingness to offer oneself up for public consumption - not something that comes naturally to Cooper. "Well, I don't think you can just use it for sending out press releases," she says, without irony.

As candidates declared themselves for the Labour leadership election last year, there was hopeful speculation that Cooper would enter the race. In the end, her husband ran instead, even though, as he recently admitted in an interview with the New Statesman, he knew he wouldn't win. She denies that this was frustrating, claiming that he "changed the debate" and did "some great campaigning".

“I think it was a really good thing that he was part of that campaign," she says. She also rejects the idea she was angling to be shadow chancellor. An economist by training, she would clearly be suited to the role. Doesn't she secretly want her husband's job? "I'm really enjoying this one, thank you," she replies, with a smile.

Both Cooper and Balls have always laughed off the suggestion that they discuss politics at home. I don't believe her: how could a husband and wife, both serving in the shadow cabinet, sharing a boss, taking over each other's jobs (Cooper followed Balls into the shadow home secretary role after he became shadow chancellor), not discuss their working lives?

“Of course you do talk, of course," she concedes. "When I started, it was hugely helpful talking to him about things he'd been doing."

I mention that, on the radio that morning, Balls had been discussing how the cuts were going to affect women, which sounded suspiciously like one of Cooper's lines. "It's good, isn't it?" she laughs. "He's listening!"

When Cooper announced that she would not run for the leadership, many Conservative MPs, including the Prime Minister, sniped at her reasons, suggesting that Balls had stopped her from standing. At the time, Cooper wrote a column in the Guardian passionately defending her decision. Now, looking back, she realises that Cameron's reaction was indicative of a wider problem. "They've just got a blind spot on women," she says. She cites David Willetts, who suggested that working women had caused problems for low-income families. In her assessment, there are two issues - a "traditional Tory paternalistic view" that women should be at home looking after the children, and a liberal position that wants the state to withdraw as much as possible from people's lives, especially the family. Together, these make a "toxic combination" for women.

Cooper always said that her reason for not standing was timing: her children were young, and the campaign involved a gruelling schedule of debates all round the country. "Even though I work long hours, there is a line that is right for me and for my family," she says. What if the time was right? Would she consider it? "I do not think that is where we're at, at all, right now." But hypothetically speaking? "You cannot ever know what situations will be in the future." Then she rattles off her loyalty speech. "Right now, we've got a leader and I think he is doing a good job and the priority is for everybody to pull round him and work with him."

She claims that the party is "notably united". When I question this, given that the majority of Labour MPs and members voted for the leader's brother, she says: "You have a leadership campaign, and of course it's difficult if you backed other candidates." But she insists that Labour is on a "journey". "The more people do get to know [Ed Miliband], the more they like him," she says.

Unsuitable for kids

At the end of the day, we sit down outside a café in Leamington Spa. Cooper has just listened to a policeman's detailed account of strife in the town, mostly "the awful lot of drunk people on Friday and Saturday nights". Nearly off-duty, she relaxes visibly.

I ask her why she thinks she is so often accused of being guarded, oppressively on-message, at times lacking personality. "I think it is complicated if you've got kids, especially when a lot of your identity as a person is about your family and about children," she says. "But actually it's not fair to talk about them, because they didn't choose this and they don't want to read about themselves in the papers or in the media. And yet so much about the stories of my life or the chaos of my life will actually be about the kids, things that we do in the morning, things that go wrong, whatever. If you're talking to a constituent you meet in the street, a lot of chatting is about how the kids are, about the family. But you can't do that in the media - or I think it's not fair to."

Does she criticise politicians who push their family into the public eye? She hesitates for a long time, as though I have asked her for a detailed position on the graduate tax (except, for Cooper, that would be easy - it's the personal stuff she finds thorny). Carefully, she says: "I think it's always unwise. But equally I avoid escalating a whole debate about politicians and families by talking about choices other people make." For once, she breaks her own rule: "I just think it's better to keep kids out."

Family life is Cooper's downtime, her fun. Recently they all went to The X Factor Live Tour. I don't believe her at first, struggling to imagine the shadow chancellor and shadow home secretary singing along at the O2 Arena. "This was actually my birthday treat," she says. Apparently, there were a few options on the table, and they had a family vote (AV?) to decide.

Asked to choose her favourite act, she settles into serious thought, as though she's mulling policy options. "Well," she ponders. "Interesting." (Answer - from the TV programme, Rebecca Ferguson; live, the winner Matt Cardle and Cher Lloyd: "They looked like they enjoyed the performance more.")

The thought of Cooper and Balls swaying to Cardle's "When We Collide" is disconcerting. At that moment, they couldn't be further from their Westminster lives, the grind of opposition, the po-faced speeches to parliament.

Cooper says she misses the irreverence of journalism: "The difficult thing in politics can sometimes be the earnestness all the time."

I want to tell her that it's only her own earnestness that she needs to worry about, that it's not part of the job description, but instead we laugh at the idea that, underneath all that conviction, there's a rebellious hack desperate to escape.

Could she imagine doing anything else? "I'm sure there are loads of fun things you could do," she says, unable to name one. Cooper recalls her childhood dream of becoming a tap dancer and soon we're back to the 1976 Eurovision Song Contest. "I was seven when Brotherhood of Man won," she says, her face brightening with excitement like a child's. "So I took it really seriously and I knew all the routine and I could do the crossover arms and everything." And she kicks her heels out and swings her arms to prove it.

Sophie Elmhirst is an assistant editor of the New Statesman

Sophie Elmhirst is a freelance writer and former New Statesman features editor.

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special