Labour is conducting a “startlingly retro” leadership campaign and is at risk of going back to the politics of the 1950s, treating women as incapable of the top jobs and instead electing two men to represent the party as leader and deputy leader, Yvette Cooper has told the Guardian.
In a bid to give greater definition and drive to her campaign, the contender said her task is to hold together the centre of the party, and for her “the radical modern centre of the party must be one which champions equality, and fights against the barriers, discrimination and injustice which hold people back”.
The shadow home secretary has been accused of running a bland non-ideological campaign in the belief that the voting system will benefit the candidate that creates the fewest enemies, but in a Guardian interview she attempted to rebut that charge by promising to make equality the animating focus of her campaign.
“We can’t go back to an old fashioned Labour party – not just back to the politics of the 80s but of the politics of the 50s – treating women as incapable of the top jobs, and a party led by two men,” Cooper said.
On current betting, the deputy leadership is likely to go the campaigning MP and former union official Tom Watson, and the leadership either to Andy Burnham or Jeremy Corbyn, with Liz Kendall coming fourth.
Personalising the subject, Cooper added: “It’s been a startlingly retro campaign debate. Andy’s campaign seem to be calling for Liz and I to bow out and leave it to the boys, or suggesting that somehow women aren’t strong enough to do the top jobs.
“Liz has been asked about her weight, I’ve been asked (on [BBC Radio 4’s] Woman’s Hour of all places) about whether I can possibly do this job because of my husband, and any talk about me being a working mum has been used as a sexist way to divide Liz and I and criticise Liz for not having children.”
Cooper was speaking after a torrid week for Labour in which key figures traded insults, the leadership suffered a heavy backbench revolt over welfare and further signs emerged that leftwinger Corbyn is making strong progress across the country, and could at least get into the final runoff ballot.
Both the Cooper and Kendall camp are also furious with a piece in the Times headlined “Women are not tough enough to lead Labour”. The piece was reporting remarks by a prominent Burnham supporter Lord Falconer in which the peer had said “neither Yvette or Liz were able to steer the party through the challenging years ahead”.
Falconer, the shadow justice secretary, said he was horrified by the headline on the piece, and his own article had never implied Cooper or Kendall’s gender or toughness were at issue. He said the Times itself had acknowledged the error.
But Barry Sheerman, a Kendall supporting MP branded Burnham’s leadership drive “a very macho campaign, a very male campaign”. He added: “When he announced at the beginning he was the ‘change candidate’ and then appointed hatchet men to run his campaign, I think we took that with a pinch of salt.”
The Cooper camp is determined to make equality, including women’s equality, a defining issue for her campaign, as well as to make it central to her new appeal as the person who can hold the centre of the party together.
“I believe that the campaign for equality has stalled. Disability hate crime is growing, maternity discrimination has increased, homophobic bullying isn’t being challenged, antisemitism and islamophobia have increased. Meanwhile the new emerging high tech jobs of the digital age are being predominantly done by men, and there is still a longstanding problem of lack of black and ethnic minority police,” she said.
Cooper also called for a shakeup of equality laws modelled on Australia so the UK has four separate commissioners to focus on specific issues, and ensure they report directly to parliament. Their number would include a women’s equality commissioner to look at, for instance, opening up tech and digital jobs to women.
Other posts under consideration include racial, disability and LGBT equality commissioners – a set of posts with echoes of the separate commissions that were abolished and merged into the Equality and Human Rights Commission created when Labour was last in power.
In her interview Cooper also revealed for the first time how she cried on election night as her husband Ed Balls lost his seat. “One of the toughest things was talking on the phone to the children – our oldest had her first GCSE that day – trying to stop them getting upset as they watched the headlines come through. But the thing about Ed is that he is so strong and also so generous. He gave a beautiful speech that had not just me but I think half the Labour party across the country in tears as we watched.”
The sexism row was largely sidestepped by Corbyn’s campaign which is expected to go over the 100-constituency nomination mark this weekend and announced it is doubling its target for small donations to £100,000.
In a sign of the gulf opening up within the party over the path back to power, Ken Livingstone, a Corbyn backer, dismissed Tony Blair’s achievement in winning three elections. “This is the thing, we all talk about Tony Blair, saying ‘he won three elections’, but he was very lucky – the Tory party was having a psychiatric breakdown,” he argued.
“The simple fact is all over the country – I was campaigning in key Tory marginals at the general election – working-class people were saying ‘what did the last Labour government do for me?’. The good jobs we had have all been wiped out; we were in love with bankers; we didn’t build and restructure our economy; we didn’t build the homes that their children can get from the local council.”
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