In November 1997, not long after Labour’s landslide election victory, the newly elected Yvette Cooper wrote a column in the Independent, where she had previously worked as a writer on economics. “Seven months ago, I was still a journalist, delighting in the healthy scepticism and intelligent individualism that makes broadsheet newspapers so essential to a thriving democracy,” the new MP observed. “In contrast, I fear now that former journalist colleagues will find me earnest, idealistic and breathless. So be it. We have a unique opportunity.”
Fast-forward to 2015, and although few would accuse the 46-year-old of breathlessness, the charge of earnestness has not gone away. When the Labour leadership race began, the conventional wisdom was that Andy Burnham would run a good campaign but ultimately Cooper would triumph by picking up all the other candidates’ second preferences. Her campaign would not be flashy but it would be reassuring. By not making too many pledges, she would win with a clean slate, rather than being hidebound by promises made to assuage one special interest group or another.
The entry of Jeremy Corbyn into the race, and the subsequent surge of support for a conventionally socialist policy platform, upset that calculus. So, I ask Cooper on a visit to her spartan offices overlooking Big Ben, has her campaign been too nebulous? What does she think Labour is for? “The simple answer is the Labour Party has to be for a fairer country,” she says in a soft northern accent. “It has to be for greater equality.”
For her, that means weaving together the two strands of Labour identity that have shaped her politics. The first is the “liberation and emancipation tradition”, which takes in feminism and LGBT rights. One of the first political campaigns she was involved in was against Section 28, the legislation banning the “promotion” of homosexuality. “That is probably one of my only . . . well, my few law-breaking moments, when we graffitied these buildings – hoardings – with triangles before a big march.” I look mildly surprised at such youthful recklessness. Where was that? “At Oxford.”
The second strand of her politics is the “tradition of solidarity from the coalfield communities”, with its emphasis on hard work and looking after your neighbours: “Christian socialism but without the God attached”, she calls it. This might seem familiar: in the early days of his leadership, Ed Miliband also used to talk about communities, under the rubric of Blue Labour, an intellectual project championed by the academic Jonathan Rutherford, the independent-minded peer Maurice Glasman and the Dagenham and Barking MP, Jon Cruddas. It was aimed at finding a way for Labour to appeal to socially conservative, working-class voters – essentially, Daily Mail readers who found the party a bit too Guardian.
But Cooper thinks the project was flawed. “I’ve always found the Blue Labour approach to family and community actually just too traditional, too anti-women,” she says. “There’s something in that whole tradition . . . that always assumes all communities are good. You just have strong communities and that’s a good thing. Actually no, some communities are really oppressive and, you know, divisive. Or that all families are a good thing. Well, actually, there’s abuse and there’s violence within the family, and you should be strong about justice as well as about families.”
Cooper is arguably the most experienced of the leadership contenders. Educated at a comprehensive school, Oxford and Harvard, she made her maiden speech in 1997 days after Labour’s first Budget in 18 years, focusing on unemployment in her constituency and the struggle of former mining communities to adapt. “Keynes said: ‘In the long run we are all dead’ – but I say, ‘So what?’ Our children and our grandchildren will still be alive,” she concluded.
In the years that followed she progressed swiftly, serving as minister for housing, chief secretary to the Treasury (during the financial crash in 2008) and secretary of state for work and pensions. Most recently, she has shadowed Theresa May at the Home Office. What reason does she give for May’s longevity in the post, when her predecessors had the life expectancy of a chocolate teapot? “When things go wrong, Labour home secretaries always used to feel we need to go and reassure people that we’re doing something about it, whereas Theresa May just stays way out of the way and blames somebody else.”
In 2001, with the birth of her second child, she became the first minister to take maternity leave, an experience she found relatively stress-free. But when she had her third child in 2004 she found the civil servants in the Communities Department “very unsupportive”. (In 2001 the Daily Mail had nicknamed her “the Minister for Maternity Leave”, noting that “Mrs Cooper [sic] is known as a self-contained character, who gives little away – even to her family”. Fourteen years later, that still sums up the prevailing opinion of her in the party.)
Her political persona has never been that of a firebrand feminist, but during this campaign she has made an explicitly gendered pitch for the top job. First, there is the assertion that “it’s time Labour elected a woman leader”; second, her pledges include buffer zones around abortion clinics and better provision of women’s refuges, where contracts too often go to generic outsourcing companies rather than specialist providers. She names Jane Ellison as her favourite Tory MP, for the work they did together on opposing a crackdown on sex-selective abortion, which Cooper saw as a Trojan horse for attempts to restrict access to termination more generally. “I wish I was here as Labour home secretary having this discussion, because we would have done a Violence Against Women and Girls Bill,” she adds.
Like many women, she says, she has been reluctant to push herself forward. Although she comes from a politically engaged family – her father was general secretary of the Prospect trade union – she “ended up as an MP by accident” after being urged to stand in 1997 by her fellow candidates Ruth Kelly and Lorna Fitzsimons. “Women often need to be asked to apply for things or to stand for things or to be encouraged, whereas men are more likely to think to do something,” she says. “So if you want to encourage more women at the top of an organisation you have to actively ask and encourage.”
Yet not everyone is impressed with her feminist credentials. There have been complaints from Liz Kendall’s camp that Cooper’s pitch as a “working mum” is an implicit rebuke to their candidate’s childlessness (Cooper rejects this, saying the point is being used to divide women unnecessarily). Others in the party complain that she has a record of squashing potential female rivals. When I ask which women in the party she is proud to have mentored or promoted, she says she doesn’t want to “take the credit” for anyone’s career, but names Seema Malhotra, a junior shadow minister in Cooper’s team, as someone who is “doing some great stuff”.
She also believes that a female leader would be well placed to attack David Cameron. “I don’t think he sees or gets women’s lives at all, which is why [the Tories] do things like such massive cuts to tax credits, which will heavily hit women . . . I don’t think David Cameron knows how to handle women in parliament, either, in the chamber, in the Commons. You know, the ‘calm down, dear’ moment was an extreme example of it, but it’s not the only example.”
To prove that she isn’t only interested in feminism when there are partisan points to be scored, she shows me a 1999 parliamentary question she found while clearing out her office. In it, she asks Patricia Hewitt – then economic secretary to the Treasury – about the impact of the Budget on women. That’s depressing, I say. Sixteen years later you’re still having to ask the same questions. “It shows consistency about a problem that’s not yet been solved,” she replies. “But it also shows the contrast . . . Labour governments could deliver.”
That is the heart of the Yvette Cooper pitch, and her rebuttal to Corbynmania. She has been a Labour MP in government and out of it, and she prefers the former.
At leadership hustings, she tells the story of speaking to a constituent on election day who was in arrears on the bedroom tax. In between sorting out the woman’s debt, Cooper urged her to go to the polling booth. “What we were trying to do that day was sort out her bedroom-tax arrears but also abolish the bedroom tax altogether . . . So we persuaded her to go and vote, but what difference did it make? We lost. We let her down; we can’t abolish the bedroom tax.”
Election day brought another blow for Cooper – her husband, Ed Balls, who had hoped to become chancellor of the Exchequer, lost his seat to a Conservative candidate. A polarising politician, Balls had won respect from colleagues for his relentless countrywide campaigning although many marvelled that he did not take more care when his own seat was so marginal. “It was admirable, but mad,” a shadow cabinet colleague of his told me afterwards. “You have to mind your own backyard.”
Cooper says that when the results from Balls’s seat, Morley and Outwood, came through on the morning of 8 May, she was devastated, and struggled with an “immediate emotional feeling . . . of wanting to walk away”. But party loyalty and a sense of purpose won out. “You can’t walk away, because it’s too important.”
The unspoken truth, of course, is that her partner’s exit from parliament made it easier for her to stand for leader. After the Miliband v Miliband psychodrama of 2010, who would want to risk stories about cabinet splits between a husband and wife? There are practical benefits to the new arrangement, too: a few days after the election, Balls was pictured collecting the family’s dry-cleaning, and during the Budget he took their teenage daughter on holiday to Greece. Cooper tells me he has recently baked an impressive Go Ape cake for one of their children’s birthdays, and laughs at my suggestion that he go on The Great British Bake-Off. (For an insight into what Ed Balls might be like as a political spouse, consider this, from a 1996 Independent column by Cooper: “Oh for the days – and the balls – of Denis. Male and retired, Denis Thatcher could play the strong, silent type . . . Denis was never required to slide on to the stage at an English seaside resort to snuggle with Margaret at the end of her speech.” So, no snuggling from Ed. Praise be.)
Both Cooper and Balls have tried to keep their children out of the public eye, and insights into their home life are rare. She has said that work, childcare and demands for a “taxi service” don’t leave a lot of time for hobbies. The last book she read for pleasure was an Agatha Christie mystery – “about how the establishment had to stand firm against a communist conspiracy that was manipulating the General Strike” – and she likes watching Strictly Come Dancing and Doctor Who, though she worries that the latter has become “a bit dark”. (Her favourite Doctor is David Tennant but Peter Capaldi is growing on her: “Now I really like him. I just feel like he’s too sad, so I feel worried for him.”)
It’s just as well that Cooper doesn’t have many outside interests, because whoever takes over the party will face a formidable task. If you accept the premise that Scotland is lost to Labour for a generation – and most observers do – then the party needs to win more seats in England and Wales than it did in 1997 just to scrape an overall majority. Unsurprisingly, Cooper sees fighting nationalism as critical to Labour’s rehabilitation: challenging not only the Scottish National Party, but also the English nationalism promoted by Ukip and the Tories.
“The biggest challenge for us is Scotland,” she says. “The heart of that is actually how you stand up against nationalism and how you cope with nationalism. When you’ve got falling living standards for a long period of time, that is always fertile ground for nationalism, and has been all over Europe.”
Her analysis, with its emphasis on UK-wide solidarity, reminds me of the one I heard from Labour’s chief election strategist Douglas Alexander before he was swept away by the SNP wave in May. He reflected that it was hard for a party that stressed solidarity to compete with one that gave priority to identity. “The thing about nationalism is it manages to combine the politics of blame with a false politics of hope,” Cooper says. “Hope for a better, sparkly future that is simply about changing the name of your country.” She does not believe that Labour should back full fiscal autonomy (“that’s just bad for Scotland”), but Scottish Labour does need to have “a distinctive Scottish argument about what they want to do” and be able to oppose “very unsocialist” SNP policies such as cutting college places.
As voting for the leadership approaches, Cooper’s campaign has had mixed fortunes. After a slow start in May she finished almost level with Andy Burnham in nominations from constituency Labour parties, clocking up 109 to his 111 (Jeremy Corbyn secured 152). Early in August she was endorsed by Alan Johnson – who declared she had “the intellect, the experience and the inner steel” needed – and by Jack Straw. Her supporters claim that private polling puts her ahead of Burnham, though critics say this is an attempt to claim the “Stop Corbyn” mantle. A YouGov poll on 11 August put her third.
In response to criticisms that her campaign has been too quiet, a small stream of policy announcements began to dribble out. Cooper wants the minimum wage rise to apply first to care workers; the return of Sure Start centres (which looked after young children); and a freeze on appointing new members of the Lords until the second chamber has been reformed or replaced. She is open-minded about the future of the railways but opposes the return of Clause Four, Labour’s commitment to public ownership of the means of production. She scored a decent hit with a list of “Nine Broken Promises From the First 100 Days of This Conservative Government”, including cuts to tax credits. In line with collective responsibility, however, she abstained rather than voted against the Welfare Reform Bill.
There is talk in the Cooper campaign of a “radical centre” but it remains to be seen if her rather cautious platform can tempt back Corbyn supporters. For instance, when I ask her for her opinion on a universal basic income, an idea fashionable among left-wing economists, she says that “if you have a minimum wage and you have tax credits, then you have effectively a basic income”. But you don’t: UBI is supposed to apply even if you are unemployed.
If you believe the polls, Jeremy Corbyn’s lead now looks unassailable. But there is still a small chance for Cooper, as the vagaries of the leadership vote – in which candidates are eliminated in rounds and their support redistributed to their remaining rivals – mean that second preferences are vital.
Among those who will be voting Corbyn first, it is hard to predict whom they will put second. Many I’ve spoken to do not believe their candidate can win in 2020 – but they don’t believe any of the others can, either. “They might create an effective opposition if they can be shown to believe in something,” is a typical sentiment. I put this to Cooper. No one would deny that her career shows she is clever and hard-working: but discipline can feel cautious, even boring. Is there an unavoidable difference between an effective leader and an interesting leader?
“Yes,” she says simply. “And it’s also the difference between being in journalism and being in politics. The great thing I used to enjoy about being a journalist was the irreverence . . . The downside was that you could feel very strongly about something but not actually be able to deliver it or to change it. Whereas in politics there’s a lot of earnestness. Some of that’s inevitable because you’re trying to change important things and, you know, leadership is serious.”
For Cooper, getting the chance to change policy is worth a life of rictus self-control at the despatch box, in media appearances – and even at the checkout. “You can’t lose your temper . . . if someone pushes in front of you in the queue,” she observes of the downsides to life as a politician. “That’s the responsibility.” And so, the question is: does the party want discipline – or dazzle?