Door-knocking on election day in her west Yorkshire constituency, Yvette Cooper encountered a woman who had been hit hard by the coalition’s bedroom tax.
Explaining to her local MP that she owed over £2,000 in arrears and had no way of paying, the constituent broke down in sheer desperation. Cooper comforted her as best she could; practically, all she could do was take her details and urge her to vote Labour as she had done in the past.
The 46-year-old Labour leadership candidate has talked about this women’s tears on the doorstep at most of the hustings events she has taken part in. Her message is explicit: Labour’s electoral pledge to abolish the bedroom tax has gone unmet, only Labour in government can offer real respite to that constituent and millions like her, and only Cooper herself offers the experience, capability and unifying vision to lead the party into office.
What Cooper does not mention is her own tears, shed privately in her constituency worker’s car after the vexing encounter. Even when it might make her some political gain, she is supremely reticent about wearing her heart on her sleeve. Thus, after almost two decades in parliament, rising to become one of the most senior women in the last Labour government, the first woman ever to serve as chief secretary to the Treasury and, with her husband, Ed Balls, part of the first married couple to sit in cabinet together, Cooper remains an unknown quantity to many.
According to friends who recall her ducking out from a party event to buy plimsolls for her children or applying eyeliner on the bus into Westminster, Cooper is all too human. The set of descriptives she attracts – chilly, wonkish, analytical, over-cautious – may well have their truth, but are also commonly used of other powerful women. Cooper herself relates it to a lack of women in maths and sciences. “So when women want to talk about numbers, answers and evidence, it’s not seen as a normal thing to do. I think it’s a good thing to be interested in the way things work,” she says.
But how much is her apparent failure to generate grabby one-liners thus far in her leadership bid simply a reflection of character? A former Treasury colleague who has come to know her well acutely observes: “Flying kites is not in her nature. Yvette almost disdains flamboyance.” She has never been a reactive politician and is unlikely now to respond to the leftward pull of Corbyn-mania by calling for a re-nationalisation of childcare. Her own campaign team attest to how difficult it was to persuade Cooper to talk publicly about her early life and her family’s political hinterland in her first major speech.
Marking the close of nominations on 15 June, the speech which she eventually delivered described her first job – “as rural as it gets” – picking fruit for £2 an hour on the farm near where she grew up in Alton, Hampshire, and learning to drive a tractor.
She talked about coming from “a long line of strong women”: her mother, a maths teacher, and her great aunt Lizzie, a single mother who brought up three children and worked as a cleaner, who was a surrogate grandmother to Cooper and her two siblings.
She also told the audience about learning the values of solidarity from her trade unionist father, who she accompanied on the people’s march for jobs in the early eighties, and her shock when she arrived at Oxford University – where she graduated with a first in PPE in 1990 - at how few other comprehensive girls there were.
And, despite her initial reluctance, the exercise was rather like breaking a seal. At the Newsnight candidates’ debate a few days later she provided one of the breath-catching moments of the discussion when she revealed that she had spent a year living on sickness benefits after developing ME when she was 24. “I was desperate to get back to work; I hated every minute of it,” she said, going on to denounce “scrounger” rhetoric.
There’s an acceptance from those working closely with her that Cooper can veer too quickly into dense policy detail. In addition, her protectiveness of her children – and her marriage – is legendary. So she now finds herself on new territory, where her inclination to stick to political analysis has to be tempered in favour of explaining to the party who she really is, and why that means that they should elect her as their leader.
“I’m quite a private person,” says Cooper, “which is made more so by the need to protect the children – they didn’t choose their parents to do these jobs.
“But what explains the politics I have now is quite important: the different things in your past that become formative. That includes all the work on equality from personal experience, and my family background that stems from coalfield communities and that community solidarity that I was brought up with, a really strong ethos of looking after your neighbours and having an open front door.”
The key strengths and weaknesses of Cooper as a politician and, by extension, a candidate, were laid out clearly late in July at LBC Radio’s leadership hustings. As Cooper concluded her conspicuously fuzzy response to whether she would serve in Jeremy Corbyn’s cabinet, LBC presenter Iain Dale allowed himself a moment of gentle teasing: “Don’t sit on that fence, Yvette, get off it!”
“This is where I think you’ve got a problem,” Dale continued seriously, turning to face Cooper across the desk. “You equivocate too much and people don’t know where you stand.”
But if this exchange exposed what both supporters and critics consider to be Cooper’s greatest liability – indecisiveness – the event also allowed her to drive home what her campaign considers to be her greatest asset: electoral plausibility.
Challenging Corbyn earlier in the show, Cooper was trenchant: “Look me in the eye ... do you want to be a Labour prime minister? … because it’s certainly why I’m here ... ” For those who complain that her leadership bid lacks an over-arching theme, it might well be this, or a version of the question she put to the parliamentary Labour party’s private hustings in June: who would you rather sit behind at PMQs?
Being “sane, rational and intelligent”, Alan Johnson acknowledges, “doesn’t set off a box of fireworks”. The popular former home secretary declared his own support for Cooper in a Guardian article last week. This marked a significant boost to her campaign, suggesting that the Blairite wing of the party now view Cooper as the moderniser best placed to beat Corbyn, and broadened further her spectrum of PLP support, which already ran from leading Brownites to stars of the new intake like Naz Shah.
“Yvette has a very sharp brain,” says Johnson. “She understands things very quickly. And she is tremendously calm. I can’t think of a single occasion in 13 years [of government] when I saw her lose her cool, and that’s remarkable given the kinds of jobs she was doing”.
Another former colleague, who observed Cooper at close quarters in both the Blair and Brown administrations, says that the “super-smart, civilised and civil” politician is self-evidently the best candidate to hold David Cameron to account at the dispatch box. “She went nose to nose with Theresa May [as shadow home secretary], and never looked out of her depth.”
“She has a great self-confidence in herself as a politician,” they add, “versus a lack of confidence in making bold decisions. That over-caution can be a strength: she’s very considered, she likes to think around corners. But it’s also a weakness. You’ll struggle to find decisions where she has really changed the political weather. That doesn’t mean that she lacks conviction or moral clarity, but she can sometimes argue herself into the ground.”
There are some who believe that congenital over-caution, coupled with an increasing reliance on second preferences as support for Corbyn soars, has resulted in a campaign that has been – according to one supporter of a rival camp – inoffensive to the point of vacuity. “Atrocious”, says another critical friend, who worked with Cooper in government. “It was a slow start and she’s gone on to say very little.”
Sources in Cooper’s campaign readily accept the first charge: “Criticisms of us not being vocal or visible enough were entirely valid.” The reason, they say, is simple enough: “We could not have been less prepared for a leadership contest.” After a first month of frenetic organisation, the strategy for June and July has been about positioning Cooper in terms of the “radical centre”.
This is not an oxymoron, she insists: “We have to be confident that the centre of the Labour party is a radical place to be – it’s how we’ve achieved all sort of radical reforms over the years. It’s how we delivered SureStart which, of all the things we did in government, I’m still most proud.
“People think you have to choose between your heart and your head and I don’t think that’s right. I think you let people down if you think that you can only follow your values and give up on winning an election, because you can’t get rid of the bedroom tax, you can’t abolish zero hours contracts, you can’t build more homes if we’re stuck in opposition. On the other hand if we forget our values and just sign up to the welfare reform bill or 40% cuts then it’s not an alternative and not true to Labour.”
In practice, her plan for “2020 and beyond” revolves around four key areas: high quality jobs, with an emphasis on the digital economy and vocational education; recognising Conservative cuts as ideological, and proving an alternative to Osborne without pretending the deficit doesn’t exist; putting children and family first, moving towards universal childcare and restoring target of ending child poverty in a generation; and a new equality act.
But, for her campaign team, underlying the insistence that “there’s nothing fudge-y or boring about being in the centre of the Labour party” is the valid concern that Cooper can too easily be dismissed as the compromise candidate, particularly by a party that is crying out for boldness after such a bruising election defeat.
Set piece hustings and rallies – however much they may be benefiting Corbyn at present – are only one way of reaching Labour party members. The Cooper campaign has been diligent in identifying support through phone banks and constituency-focused “cluster meetings”. One local party worker attests to their effectiveness: “To engage with Yvette is to back her.”
For Vernon Coaker, Cooper’s campaign co-chair, “with Yvette, it’s about that personal connection”, as a visit to Cooper’s Yorkshire constituency of Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford suggests.
Chris Kitchen is general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and previously branch secretary at Kellingley Colliery, one of the last deep coal mines in the UK, whose closure was announced in March after the government refused it further funding. He has worked closely with Cooper both on the campaign to save the pit and now on efforts to ensure that the workers receive their redundancy due.
Sitting in his lofty office in Barnsley, he explains why – after a “very lively debate” - the NUM’s NEC chose to back Cooper for Labour leader.
“She doesn’t portray herself as being trade unionist and leftwing, but whenever I’ve contacted her she always seems to understand the socialist underpinnings of what trade unionism is about. She gets it.”
With a nod to the union-related strife experienced by the last Labour leader, he adds: “After the help and support she’s given us I genuinely believe she’s someone who can bind the party back together and I see it as a strength that she hasn’t been labelled as a union puppet. She can get across to a wider spectrum of people.”
A rugby ball emblazoned with the roaring motif of Castleford Tigers rugby league club sits on top of a cardboard box in Cooper’s constituency office. The Tigers’ CEO, Steve Gill, is a former miner himself, and all too familiar with the knock-on effects of pit closure on the local community.
With their local MP’s help, the club is anticipating a new stadium as part of a retail and country park development that aims to create 2,000 new jobs.
“I’ve always been sceptical of politicians,” says Gill, “because of what we went through in the eighties, but I do find that Yvette Cooper has a real care and passion. She does what she says on the tin.”
So often portrayed as part of a thoroughly north London New Labour set, Cooper has been coming regularly to games since she was first elected in 1997. “She doesn’t sit in the directors’ box. She has her own season ticket and sits with her kids.”
When the shadow media minister and Bishop Auckland MP, Helen Goodman, stated in early July that she was backing Cooper because she was “a working mum [who] understands the pressures on modern family life”, it provoked ire across the piece, but in particular from Liz Kendall’s camp, who saw it as an implied slight on their candidate, who is not a parent.
Cooper’s team – and indeed Kendall supporters who know Cooper well – are adamant that Goodman’s lines were not sanctioned by her. “It’s part of the problem for women that if they talk about things from their own lives its very often used to divide them from other women,” says Cooper, clearly exercised by the incident. “So when Lucy Powell talked about the challenge of being a working mum it was seen as being a criticism of stay-at-home mums. That’s crazy.
“You have Liz or Theresa May criticised for not having children but Rachel Reeves was told she couldn’t be a cabinet minister because she’d gone on maternity leave. Every aspect of women’s lives is used to divide women from each other in a way that it never is for men.”
“She doesn’t do dirty tricks,” says one veteran Westminster observer, who recalls Cooper groaning when it was suggested to her that she might win more votes by showcasing her desirable family life. “She said: ‘You don’t know what it’s like, it’s just too awful being a political child.’”
Likewise, she has no interest in playing the Asda mum, though friends talk with admiration about the military organisation required to coordinate two ministerial schedules with her determination that her children should have a circle of friends and social activities in London during the week and in Yorkshire at weekends.
Cooper has just taken 10 days off on holiday with her husband and their three children, time that she insisted should remain ring-fenced despite one hustings during the period threatening to empty chair her.
In parliament she wears her feminism lightly, but can be relied upon to turn up to Labour Women events. Yet is is notable that a number of powerful Labour women, including Rachel Reeves, Lucy Powell and Lisa Nandy, are backing Andy Burnham. Cooper has yet to commit to a 50/50 gender balance in her cabinet.
With weary inevitability, questions have been raised about how much influence her newly redundant husband would exert over Cooper’s party leadership. It is well known that the couple discussed the leadership in 2010, when Balls stood unsuccessfully against the Miliband brothers, and that Cooper stood back then because she felt her children were too young. She is also known to enjoy pointing out that she was the economist first: before entering parliament, she was an economics leader writer for the Independent.
Andrew Marr, who was editing to paper at the time, and attended the couple’s wedding in 1998, observes: “It was very difficult to be living alongside Ed Balls and not be in his shadow, but it’s clear that it is a marriage of equals. They are by far the most organised couple in British politics. In terms of political marriages, it’s the strongest I know and I think they are very much in love.”
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