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? Here's the second instalment of our interview
She’s still only 46, but Cooper already feels like a veteran of the British political landscape and that’s partly because she started so young. Elected in the New Labour 1997 landslide to the safe seat of Pontefract and Castleford at the age of 28, she went on to become Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Work and Pensions Secretary under Gordon Brown, before taking on the big jobs of Shadow Foreign Secretary and Shadow Home Secretary under Ed Miliband.
Yet it was Nigel Lawson’s 1988 Budget - and its impact on her family - that first crystallised her ambition to become a politician. A sixth former in Alton in Hampshire, but with strong northern roots, she came home to find her mother in tears of anger over the Tory Chancellor’s latest plans.
As part of the ‘Lawson boom’, he had slashed income tax, yet penalised pensioners. Cooper’s great aunt Liz, known as Auntie Liz but treated as a grandma, was one of the losers.
“They had frozen pensions for several years running but inflation was quite high so it was effectively a cut in pensions,” she explains.
“My auntie always had a low pension, because although she’d worked all her life - this is before a lot of Labour reforms sorting out women’s pensions - she’d had an employer who’d not paid full contributions for her.”
Cooper's 'Auntie Liz'
Auntie Liz, who lived in the pit village of Lowca in Cumbria, had worked in the local coal mine (“she had such a loud voice and used to say it’s because she had to shout over the coal screen machine she worked on”).
“So she didn’t have a full pension and was already way below the state pension. She had worked all her life brought up three kids on her own because her husband died. Her sister died and she took in her neice.
“She was just one of those amazing women, a matriarch of her local community. She did everything from going and helping babies to be delivered to laying out the bodies.
“And now she was having her pension cut. And my dad who’d just had a pay rise after a promotion, was having his taxes cut. And I came home my mum had tears of anger, saying ‘this is not just something they’ve done by accident, they’ve chosen it’.”
For Cooper, that memory of the gap between the better off and the less well off is still strong. “You never have a single epiphany, but it was a moment I remember strongly. It’s the first time I’ve ever thought properly about the Government doing things as opposed to thinking about things that were about injustice, I had done some Amnesty International stuff at sixth form college. but that wasn’t really about government.”
John Smith, Cooper's first political mentor
After getting a first in PPE at Oxford, Cooper started working as an economic researcher for Shadow Chancellor John Smith. But the 1992 election, during which the Tories hammered Smith’s Shadow Budget for its ‘double whammy’ of tax rises, was a rude awakening.
Cooper remembers election night vividly. Having joined fellow party activists to watch the results come in, and seen Labour’s hopes gradually curdle into the realisation of a fourth Tory election victory, she headed off to party HQ.
“The evening had become more and more miserable. They needed people to go to Walworth Road to be there when Neil Kinnock arrived to show support and solidarity.
"They had done so much preparation [for victory], they still had these roses and I held this bedraggled rose, it was a bit limp, a bit shrivelled, it was how we really felt.
“We were holding these soggy roses and I thought we can’t do this again. I remember thinking ‘will Labour ever win again?’ And actually what we did was picked ourselves up, got back on our feet and what happened was 1997. To me 2015 feels like 1992. That sense of we thought we had a chance and then it didn’t happen.”
The folk memory of that night dominated a generation of young Labour types, from the Milibands to Ed Balls and Cooper. But as well as a determination not to be portrayed as untrustworthy on the economy, the kicking the party had had in the tabloids bred New Labour’s obsession with creating message discipline. Did it the party lose something in the process?
“Politics has changed with social media, with 24 hour news. The way a political party responds has changed beyond recognition since the mid-90s,” Cooper says.
“There’s far more interest in personality and those kinds of things than before, partly because people are sharing on Facebook. If you look at Cheryl Sandberg sharing all kinds of things on Facebook.
“Not being authentic is a big problem. If you pretend to be somebody you’re not, it gets found out. But I wouldn’t want to leap to the conclusion that all people want in politics is a bit of whacky celebrity like Boris Johnson, I don’t think in the end people will want Boris Johnson to be Prime Minister.”
Bill and Hillary
The morning after the 1992 defeat, Cooper recalls getting a big hug from John Smith as he gathered his team. He told her that the party would always be strong as long as young talented people with new ideas kept joining it and believing in it.
Within days, Cooper got on a plane back to the US, where she had been studying at Harvard, and decided to get involved in the Democrats’ bid to oust George Bush senior.
She got a one-way Greyhound bus ticket to Arkansas and Little Rock to join the small team of a relatively unknown contender Bill Clinton. Cooper saw that famous ‘war room’, complete with the ‘economy, stupid’ memo.
But she reveals that in fact it was her twentysomthing need for a lie-in that first got her involved in the Clinton campaign.
“It was the New Hampshire primary. The shameful thing to admit is that my first contact with the Clinton campaign, as opposed to any of the other campaigns, was down to this: I didn’t know a huge amount about any of the candidates, but the other campaign buses were going at 8 in the morning and the Clinton bus went at nine!”
As a woman politician, her admiration for Hillary Clinton remains. “I’ve still got a badge from 1992 which says ‘I’m backing Hillary’s husband’. She did that thing where she said I’m not just going to stay at home and bake cookies, which caused huge offence and then she came up with a cookie recipe to show that she does actually bake cookies as well. So she had to handle all of that.”
Cooper says that Clinton ‘massively’ blazed a trail for other women in politics. “Because she’s done it in her own way. She’s not done it either by saying she was going to just behave like the men nor has she played a traditional women’s role, she’s very much herself all the way through.
“She’s done things her way and taken flak for doing so at different stages along the way. And has showed great endurance. Politics can very often be about short term fashion and she hasn’t given into that at all.”
Has she been in touch since she herself made it into the front line? “I haven’t spoken to her since 1992, I don’t think she would remember me!”
No 'this is what a feminist looks like' T-shirt
Cooper says that Donald Trump’s remarks to Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly - when he suggested she had given him a hard time because she was on her period - were a stark reminder of the climate in which Clinton has to operate in the US.
“It was just outrageous. All the things I can think about sexism in British politics, it’s just nothing on Donald Trump, it’s quite unbelieveable really.”
Trump’s remarks about Mexican rapists coming over the border also appalled her. Yet Trump is still the front runner in the polls, so what does she think about the prospect of him becoming the Republican candidate for President?
“Absolutely appalling and really quite horrifying. It shows partly the nature of the divided politics in the States, but what it mainly says is there’s a section of the Republican party that is just so appalling.”
He's definitely her husband
A quick glance at Google searches is often a good way to test the kind of things the general public want to know about a politician.
In Cooper’s case, the most searched for questions in order are: “Is Yvette Cooper a Blairite?”, “Is Yvette Cooper leftwing?”, “Is Yvette Cooper Scottish?” and finally ‘Is Yvette Cooper married to Ed Balls?” When the list is read out to her, the Shadow Home Secretary laughs out loud. “Interesting!”
She’s incontrovertibly married to Ed Balls and she is indeed Scottish (born in Inverness, despite her ‘too English’ reticence). As to being a Blairite or leftwing, neither tag fits, although her allies would say she has the best bits of both labels (a moderniser with a social conscience). Her critics would say her lack of definition is the key flaw of her campaign.
Still, Cooper could be a safe pair of hands should any Corbyn leadership implode. So, would she ever run for the leadership again? Andy Burnham, who ran in 2010 as well as this year, has just ruled out a third tilt at the top job.
“I really haven’t thought about that at all. Frankly I need to get through the next seven days,” she says. But she wouldn’t rule it out? “I haven’t thought about it.”
Great if you don't like cooking
Cooper decided not to run for the leadership herself five years ago because she felt her three children were just too young (her youngest was just five at the time). Indeed, Chuka Umunna and Dan Jarvis both made similar decisions to commit to their private life this summer.
And the toll of being on the campaign trail for months on end, often not seeing her children, has been difficult. “It’s been hard not being able to be with them all summer. I’ll be back really late tonight, for example,” she says.
The typical campaign diet has also left a lot to be desired. “When you are doing things around the country, you get to three o’clock and you think ‘oh, I haven’t eaten’. I get through a lot of crisps and a lot of claggy sandwiches.”
But being away from home also means being away from husband Ed’s cooking (he does all the family meals). She had a few days with the family on a camping trip to the US this summer but on her return, the impact of his absence was clear. “I went just briefly at the beginning of the holiday with them and I came back. Of course Ed does all the cooking. And so when they were away, I was completely stuffed.
“Takeaways, the fish and chip shop, one night I went to McDonald’s at ten o’clock at night. A few ready meals I could just about manage.”
With the start of school term looming at her children’s comprehensive in London next week, she’s already focused on the basics. “The BBC wanted to do an interview tomorrow and my big challenge is I’m trying to work out when I’m going to get the new school shoes!”
And while Ed may be in charge of cooking, he isn’t entrusted with buying things. “Actually school shoes [and Ed]? It’s not going to work. There are some things...I think it will be me, school run things are me.”
But despite the hassle of juggling it all [on Monday she will almost certainly have to compose a Commons statement on refugees, the same day her youngest starts at secondary school], she clearly loves being at home for the three children at the start and the end of the day. “Yeah. I do. It’s hugely important.”
A very Modern Family
The children being older [they are 16, 14 and 11] has brought new challenges. “They need you at different times now. When they are small you can get back in time to spend time with them, play games, talk to them, put them to bed. Now you think you’ve worked out a time and they are off with friends and doing stuff.
“But then suddenly they might need you and that might be at midnight, that might be at two in the afternoon at the weekend. It’s just different.”
What unites the whole family is watching sitcom Modern Family together. Her and Ed’s latest boxset binge is Friday Night Lights, set in small town Texas. (“It was Tom Bradby on Twitter who recommended it because he watched 73 episodes one summer, that’s why we watched that one.”)
The other programme that was briefly popular in the Cooper-Balls household was House of Cards, and not because it involves a power couple on the front line of politics. “We did watch the first series but then we got distracted. I thought the first series was good, the second went off a bit, so we never got to the third series.”
During the recent Channel 4 News leadership debate, Jeremy Corbyn recently had a Francis Underwood-esque look directly at the camera. But when asked what she’d say to the camera about Corbyn if she had an Underwood monologue, she just laughs.
Sad, who me?
Most of all, Cooper remains a big fan of Dr Who, even more than her children. “I’ve decided I like Peter Capaldi, but I am still worried he’s too sad, he looks just too troubled by the world, he doesn’t look like he’s enjoying it,” she says.
“The thing about both the David Tennant and Christopher Eccleston, all of them, looked like they were incredibly enthusiastic about finding new planets, new worlds, meeting Elizabeth I or Agatha Christie or whoever.
“They just had that delight. And the delight has gone. Maybe that will all be resolved. With his assistant [Clara] it’s a much better dynamic than it was before, it’s more interesting.”
She’s a big fan of the series’ strong female character, River Song, but thinks it’s time for a bit more gender equality. “We do need a woman Dr Who at some point, don’t we?”
Labour too may get its first elected woman leader ‘at some point’, with or without time travel.
As she walks down the train, back to her briefing notes on the refugee crisis and the TV debate, Yvette Cooper clearly hopes that point will come sooner rather than later.
Read the first part of our Yvette Cooper interview here