Yvette Cooper believes it's not over 'til it's over. As the Labour leadership race enters its final week, can she pull off a surprise win?
Good luck! I wish I could vote for you!” Yvette Cooper is walking through a packed train to Newcastle and Geordie woman in her fifties grabs her hand to offer support.
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The Shadow Home Secretary, clutching her handbag and briefing notes for the final Labour leadership debate, thanks her and moves on down the aisle. After she passes, the excited woman tells her three friends: “She’s the best!”
As receptions go, it’s not a bad one for a politician. Being recognised is one thing, being recognised and praised is a bonus. It’s not quite Corbynmania, but with less than a week to go, Cooper thinks she finally has some momentum and that maybe, just maybe, she can pull off a surprise win.
“The interesting thing is the response I get most is like that just walking through the train. I get a lot of people who stop me in the street who are Labour voters, but not Labour party members,” she says.
That disconnect between voters and members -the fiftysomething Geordie lady would have really made Cooper's day if she'd also been a party member - could ultimately prove significant.
Yet for now Cooper insists that there’s everything still to play for. With around half of the 550,000 Labour selectorate yet to cast their ballots, she believes she can capitalise as people finally make up their minds in the home straight of the race.
“I think there’s a huge number of people who haven’t voted yet. Some of that is delayed ballots, some of that is people being on holiday, some of that is people wanting to take time to get it right,” she says.
“And I think that is a good thing. It also fits with what I’m saying, which is we’ve got to get this right because this is really important, and not to just go down shouting from the sidelines. The whole point of the Labour party when we were first founded was to put principles into practice. If we don’t do that, we stop being the Labour Party, we just become a protest movement.”
Cooper’s late surge -the bookies slashed her odds to install her as second favourite this week - stems in part from the high profile she’s garnered by simply doing her day job, hitting the Government hard over the refugee crisis. Although she’s studiously avoided trying to exploit the issue for her leadership bid, there’s no question that Labour MPs and voters have been impressed.
She took the bold step of this week calling for 10,000 Syrian refugees to be allowed into the UK, a figure that could be reached by just 10 people being taken in by every local authority in the country.
David Cameron is now set to bow to the pressure and accept more Syrians, but the Tories have acknowledged the impact Cooper has made. “You know you're in the wrong place when the debate is being led by the Labour leadership candidates, one source told The Times.
Cooper stresses repeatedly that she’s not exploiting the issue for political gain, but simply anticipating and capturing the public mood.
“It’s really interesting, just walking up from the Tube I had three people stop me about it. And two people at King’s Cross station saying ‘well done, thank you for doing that’. And on the train just now there was a man from Newcastle saying his wife works for Newcastle council and has been involved in some of the work that Newcastle have been trying to do in order to help. People have been coming up to me to say this is so important.”
On the day we meet, Cooper has issued a plea for a summit of council leaders keen to help with refugee numbers. “We sent it out at 11 this morning and within a couple of hours we’ve had 20 councils getting in touch,” she says, checking her cracked iPad mini for the latest news.
“It’s been the same with faith groups, with the public response. I think people have been worrying about this for a while, feeling more and more troubled, that surely something more needs to be done. For me it feels as though British people across the country want to help. It’s just the British government that’s saying ‘No’.
Of course, it was the photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a Turkish beach that brought home the true tragedy of the refugee crisis. Coming the day after Cooper’s call for 10,000 places, it moved her like many others.
“I had seen a version of it on the internet and it was so distressing. And then I saw the full thing and it was completely heartbreaking,” she says. “It’s just like your child, wearing normal children’s clothes. They should be running round the beach. It’s a beach picture. You think of your own kids and you ‘think where are his parents?’”
She looks at the latest Evening Standard, which has a front page photo of three-year-old Aylan and his brother Galip, 5, smiling.
Blinking back tears, Cooper says: “The images bring it home to people in a really personal way. It makes you think about your own family, it makes you think about your own kids, it makes you think about your own summer holidays on the beach, all those images link the tragedy to that.”
The case also highlights the way the Tories’ net migration target is undermining Britain’s capacity for compassionate action. “People have always felt the difference between immigration and asylum. The problem is the Government for too long has been treating those as part of the same issue. And that’s partly because they’ve got them both in their net migration target, which is completely wrong.
“I have called on them for the last four years to take refugees out of the net migration target, especially when you’ve got this great humanitarian crisis, how could you possibly have a target which is all about reducing numbers, that is about effectively reducing refugees.
"You are saying to Home Office officials, you are saying to Border Staff, you are saying to the Home Secretary, to all the people you put under pressure to meet your targets: reduce the level of refugees. I just think that is completely wrong. So you have to have a much bigger separation of immigration and asylum.”
Cooper first raised the Syrian refugee issue at the end of September 2013 when there was the first major crisis in the camps. Backed by the Lib Dems’ Ming Campbell, she used a series of Urgent Questions and debates until the Coalition agreed it had to act.
“In the end they still didn’t sign up to the UN programme which is what we were calling on them to do. Instead they said they would set up their own parallel programme but that is the one that has only taken just over 200 people, so it’s still very small and certainly doesn’t meet the scale of the problem now.”
But although she’s been trying to raise the issue, Cooper felt her words were meeting media and Government indifference and that by putting a figure of 10,000 on her demand she could make people sit up.
“I’ve been calling on the Government to do more for some time and it just felt as though it wasn’t being heard. And that’s why I decided actually we are going to have to talk about numbers. Because although it’s always controversial to talk about numbers but if you weren’t going to do that, it wasn’t going to be heard.”
Just as Tony Blair caught the public mood as a young Opposition leader over the Jamie Bulger case, Cooper appeared to strike a chord with the public. Given that she’s been accused repeatedly of being too cautious, was there a political lesson there that being bold can have more impact?
She pauses to gather her thoughts, and then gives possibly her clearest answer yet to the charge that she plays her politics too ‘safe’. “I suppose the thing that I always have in mind is ‘how do you make things happen?’” she says.
“Sometimes the way to make things happen is to go out and say something very controversial and to be very bold. Sometimes you have to build a consensus beforehand and then by the time you say something it doesn’t sound so bold.
“But I think what was striking about this is everybody was underestimating the British public, the sense that people have of the need to act. Because everybody’s just been assuming we are all trapped in the immigration politics, and arguments about immigration policy and anxiety about immigration.
"And there will be lots of people who still want strong reforms to the immigration system but who also think we should do more to help refugees.”
Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to countenance UK military action is a flaw in his own response to humanitarian crises too, she believes, pointing to the example of Kosovo. “I think you always have to work for peace, but sometimes you have to fight for justice,” she says.
“And sometimes you have to be prepared to. We were absolutely right to intervene in Kosovo, I also still think it was the right thing to do to stop what was happening in Benghazi and the huge humanitarian crisis that there would have been, even though the follow on consequences have been really difficult. There’s a big challenge about what should have been done in the aftermath.
“The big question about any kind of military action is not just what is the short term strategy of a few months but what is your five-year, ten-year strategy. That was where the failure was with the Iraq intervention.”
Military action in Syria still requires some big tests before she’d approve it, but Cooper hasn’t ruled it out. The fact that Aylan Kurdi is Kurdish, and fleeing ‘the barbarism of ISIL’, was also not lost on her.
“Britain has done a lot to support the Kurds and rightly so over many years. And that was an important part of a lot of the debate around Iraq. We got things wrong, including weapons of mass destruction, taking the focus from Afghanistan. But you have to learn from the things that went wrong and take responsibility for that, but not be paralysed by the past when it comes to humanitarian interventions and what needs to be done in the future.”
Intervention overseas is part of Labour’s history, she adds. “It has always done, if you go back, whether it’s about the Second World War, whether it’s about Kosovo, it’s a responsibility that we have as part of our internationalism. You have to be thoughtful and you have to be careful but I think internationalism is immensely important.
“It’s why we should stay part of Nato, why we should stay part of the EU. The refugee crisis is a crisis of crossing borders. The idea that anyone country can deal with it on their own is just absurd.”
But given the positive reaction she’s had to her refugee announcement, is it fair to say she’s found her voice in recent weeks?
“I think I suppose my voice will always be strongest when there’s a lot a stake which there is around the refugees,” she says.
“I want to separate the issues here. In terms of the leadership campaign, I do feel there is a lot at stake for the future of Labour party and that means having the ability to help people across the country.
"We had an event last night in north London, hundreds of people there, and one man I was talking to I said ‘8 days to the ballots close’ and he said ‘those are an incredibly important eight days because they will decide the next 10 years’.
“He didn’t mean the next 10 years for the Labour party, he meant decide the next ten years for the country. And actually that’s right. If we rip up our chance now of winning the next election, if we make it possible for the Tories to destroy the Labour party, then we will be letting people across Britain down. That is what is so important.
“I think it is possible to change the Government’s policy on refugees, even though we are in Opposition, but you have to be strong enough to do those sorts of things. There’s so many things I wanted to do if I was Home Secretary, violence against women and girls, all those sorts of things. I can’t do them now. You have to win.”
Next week, rather than being on the campaign stump in the final few days of the leadership race, Cooper will be focused on the House of Commons, again doing her day job.
A government statement is likely from either the Prime Minister or Theresa May. While it may undermine any hopes of a ‘whistlestop’ tour, it does underline her main pitch: that’s she’s a box-ready, batteries-included Labour leader and Prime Minister in waiting, ready to go, not needing to grow into the job.
Yet there’s a hint that her Shadow Home Secretary role, and her focus on the general election rather than the leadership, in fact handicapped her campaign early on.
“I hadn’t done any planning, thinking or anything like that before the election. Because I wanted us to win the general election, and maybe I believed the opinion polls too much. I thought we had a good chance of getting a hung Parliament, at least. A good chance of a Labour-led Government, and it was non-stop campaigning.
“But I think it was really hard after the general election, you not only feel obviously you haven’t done any preparation or thought about this but you also feel as sense of huge disappointment and loss [her husband Ed Balls famously lost his seat on May 7].
"All kinds of plans we had that get ripped up. I found that hard but also the party found that hard. The first six weeks and it was just like everybody was just on the floor. It was really hard for anyone to start thinking about the future. That does take time to rebuild.”
Has the leadership campaign taught her anything about herself? “That’s a really good question,” she says, and it’s not the usual obfuscation.
After a long pause, her answer reveals just how uncomfortable she is talking about herself rather than her ideas. “I think the thing that is different in running for the leadership and other campaigning is all other previous jobs that I’ve done in the end it’s all about what are you fighting for, what is it you want to change.
“Sometimes the way you do it is by persuading other people to do things rather than going out and doing things yourself and rather than talking about yourself and having to sell yourself. And I suppose the difference in a leadership campaign is that you’re also having to sell yourself.
“And actually I’m a bit too English to do that all the time. The thing I had most trouble with when I first started, she [pointing to her aide Amy] had got these great banner things, pop up things, with my face on. I would look at it and think ‘that’s just too embarrassing, I can’t go and stand in front of a big picture of my face, that’s just not a very English thing to do.’ I had to. And that is a big change.
“When I first started doing the leadership, people were expecting me to talk about ‘as Leader I will do x, y and z’ rather than ‘we the Labour party should do x, y and z’. That’s a style thing.
“The other thing is that when you first stand to be selected as a candidate, you are for that brief period selling yourself. Once you are selected as a Labour candidate, you are promoting the Labour party and a whole set of values. And to be honest, I’m much more comfortable saying this is a set of ideas and about a vision of things that we want all of us to do.
“I still think in a leadership campaign, when you are trying to become a leader it ends up being about individuals. But once you become a leader of the Labour party that’s not in the end what it’s about. It’s not about ‘I’, it’s about ‘we’. And that’s what it ought to be about because we can only do things together.”
But when it comes to Jeremy Corbyn riding to victory on the back of lots of new members, not everyone is keen on ‘we’, it seems. Peter Mandelson was reported this summer to have been working behind the scenes to get Cooper, Burnham and Kendall to voluntarily pull out of the race in a bid to halt it, pending investigation into claims of ‘entryism’ by leftwingers.
Is it true he asked her and the others to pull out? “I never had any discussions with him,” Cooper replies.
“As I understand it he was questioning whether the whole process should be stopped. It wasn’t about candidates standing down in favour of each other or anything like that. It was about whether the process should be stopped… You would need to ask him.”
Did Mandelson contact her campaign though, if not her directly? “Not that I’m aware of, but to be honest he may have done. I know he was of that view and he was contacting people and having discussions about it.”
Some have suggested in recent days that Corbyn will have to win all three sections of what some are calling Labour’s new ‘electoral college’ under the new one-member, one-vote rules: ‘full’ members, affiliated members added by trade unions and £3 ‘registered supporters’. Does she agree?
“I don’t think it’s about specific election results, it’s about what happens afterwards,” she replies. “I think in the last leadership election there were obviously different results in different parts of the electoral college last time [unions swung it for Ed, while members went for David Miliband] and actually the party united behind Ed.
“I think what will be more important is what the strategy is after that, what the platform is, and what the policy process is. That’s my worry about some of the people backing Jeremy have been calling for plans around deselection, plans around trying to deselect MPs who didn’t support Jeremy. I call on Jeremy to condemn that approach because I don’t think that is the right approach."
But if they fail to win the ‘full members’ section, will any leader effectively be ‘walking wounded’? The straight bat is played. “You are asking me to speculate on a result that hasn’t happened. Which I just think is not possible to do.”
Cooper is more worried about recent threats of deselection to sitting MPs who didn’t back Corbyn. “What happened in the 1980s made it possible for the Tories to become more right wing in Government, made it possible for Margaret Thatcher to take a harder line because the Labour party wasn’t as a credible threat, a credible alternative. It’s not just about what for you and others becomes a spectator sport, the Labour party fighting itself. It’s about making it harder for us to defeat them. It’s divided parties, people don’t want a party fighting among itself.”
If there is a Corbyn victory, what would the impact be on the party’s image among the public at large, in key marginals like Nuneaton that the party needs to win back to win power? Cooper is reluctant to speculate on her rival winning, but is clear that Labour voters want the party in power.
“I think the new members did join because they want us to change things. They don’t want us to just be completely unable to act when there’s a bedroom tax put in place or whatever,” she says.
And right now, she feels impotent. “You get it as an MP because surgeries in Opposition are just rubbish. When you’re in government there’s always something you can do to help, you could go to Job Centre Plus, go to the local council, the housing association, if all that failed you could go and see a government minister.
"Now, it’s like everything has been taken away, the local ability to respond has been taken away and when you go to a minister, fat lot of use that is.
“So the feeling that the only thing you can do is give people the details of the food bank, that is really punishing. The whole point of politics is to make a difference. If the only thing you can do is give details of a charity, what is the point of politics? I think in the end that’s what’s in the heart of most Labour party members. We don’t like just being powerless and unable to do things.”
And yet if Corbyn becomes leader, is there a danger that Cooper will resign herself to the sidelines? Isn’t she tempted to stay on in the Shadow Cabinet if he wins?
“I think it’s really unlikely. What I’m not doing is getting drawn into detail of speculating about an election that hasn’t happened. But I have said this is pretty unlikely because I’m not going to be able to support prevaricating on the EU or potentially pulling out of Nato.”
But given that policy won’t change unless the party votes to change it at party conference and other forums, doesn’t she have a duty to stay and fight for things like Nato and EU membership and Trident renewal? “If there are big fundamental disagreements with the leader, that makes it very hard to be part of the senior team,” she replies, bluntly.
“We could get Jeremy to change his views on a whole series of things but so far he’s showed that he’s particularly keen to do that.”
Still, Cooper gave up her job as a young leader writer on the Independent way back in the 1990s precisely because she felt that she had to be an MP to effect real change. Wouldn’t it be a huge wrench to head off to the backbenches at the age of 46?
“Let’s hope it won’t happen, eh?” She laughs, but it’s clear she’s serious.
Read the second part of our Yvette Cooper here