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Yvette Cooper: Labour’s leader in exile?

Yvette Cooper is one of Labour’s most effective politicians, so could she one day replace Keir Starmer?

Labour MP Yvette Cooper takes part in a rally in Parliament Square - Credit: NurPhoto via Getty Images

The recent Labour reshuffle  turned out to be as underwhelming for the party as the election results that had prompted it. For a start there was remarkably little reshuffling, and the two most significant developments were major anticipated changes that never actually came to pass.

First was the non-firing of Angela Rayner, in yet another sign of the chaos and factional divides tearing the party apart. But the other was perhaps even more revealing about the crisis facing Labour: despite being heavily tipped for a return to frontline politics, Yvette Cooper, one of the party’s few remaining big beasts, was left on the backbenches.

Her continued political exile means that two of Labour’s most popular and articulate politicians are not in the shadow cabinet. And like the other – Manchester mayor Andy Burnham – Cooper is now the focus of speculation for those wondering who could replace Keir Starmer, should his leadership come to a premature end.

Labour could certainly benefit from Cooper’s talents right now. Her righteous anger and knack for making complex political topics accessible mean she is a more effective communicator than most in the shadow cabinet. And as Britain prepares to get to grips with the immense financial cost of Covid, her expertise in economics – a first in PPE from Oxford earned her a Kennedy Scholarship and a subsequent MSc in the subject – would add a tremendous amount of talent to the front bench.

But in a party with long memories, Cooper comes with baggage. Some consider her a relic of the Blair/Brown era (she was in the cabinet from 2008-2010 and in junior ministerial roles for long before that), while others will associate her with the failures of Ed Miliband’s leadership (she was shadow home secretary from 2011 until 2015).

Cooper is generally considered to be on Labour’s right (or a ‘moderate’, as the jargon has it) and had Starmer proceeded to appoint her and fire Rayner, it would have been taken as a declaration of war against the left of the party.

At the start of the Corbyn years, when the left were in the ascendancy, Cooper headed to the backbenches, after almost 17 years at senior levels in the party. From there, she was less outspoken against his leadership than some of her colleagues, but did support Owen Smith when he challenged Corbyn.

The year before, she had stood for the leadership herself, coming third with 17%. (Burnham was second, with 19%.) So could she fare better if she were to stand again? To assess her chances, it is important to understand the reasons behind her previous failed leadership and the radical ideological shift the internet has brought about in the Labour Party membership.

No longer confined to reading mainstream media, members have found a new information ecosystem. New left media outlets such as Novara Media now dominate that alternative left information landscape, and their influence on the party membership cannot be underestimated.

This creates a problem for politicians who began their careers under the ‘old politics’ – many of whom have used parliamentary protocol pragmatically, in a way that doesn’t play well to this alternative media.

For example, in 2015 many Labour Party MPs, including Cooper, abstained on the Conservative government’s welfare bill. Abstention on a bill’s first reading, rather than voting against it outright, is a tactic routinely adopted as it allows for the bill to be rejected via amendment at later readings. But this kind of subtle parliamentary action is regularly denounced in the alt left media, interpreted by its pundits as tacit support for bills that would be firmly opposed by the party’s most ideological wings.

Such attacks damaged Cooper in 2015 and would doubtless do so again should she try to become the party’s first female leader again. Cooper’s failure in 2020 to vote against the Conservative-led immigration bill, which introduced a tier immigration system penalising migrants in low-paid jobs, has left a further dent in her reputation among the Labour left.

But activists who underestimate Cooper’s ability to appeal to social media users do so at their peril: her fiery brand of righteous anger has every likelihood to gain traction on the internet. In 2017, her cutting question to then-prime minister Theresa May found itself shared rapidly on social media. “She [Theresa May] wants us to believe that she is a woman of her word,” she said. “Is it the truth that we cannot believe a single word she says?” (The Commons confrontation prompted Tory MP David Mundell to shout “leadership pitch”.)

Cooper has a savviness about social media usually associated with a younger generation of politician. During the marking of ‘Ed Balls Day’ in 2016, the anniversary of the time her husband, the former shadow chancellor, tweeted his own name instead of searching for it, she celebrated with a photo of a cake adorned with the original tweet at the heart of the joke.

If Labour’s fortunes continue to slump, Cooper, as an outsider well away from the inner circle, will see her reputation enhanced in comparison. (Her husband, Ed Balls, has enjoyed this phenomenon to an extreme extent: his stint on Strictly Come Dancing, subsequent TV career and recent campaigning on care homes has made him a far more popular figure than he was as a notoriously hard-nosed MP.)

Cooper has a chance to further burnish her credentials, for any future leadership contest, as chair of the Home Affairs select committee, one of Westminster’s plum jobs and a showcase for politicians beyond the front benches. She is also a regular Labour voice on the media, appearing on The Andrew Marr Show earlier this month, for instance.

There is a problem though: her constituency of Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford is hanging on a threadbare majority of just over 1,000, with the Conservative vote split by the Brexit Party in 2019. (Cooper had earned the enmity of Brexiteers when she led a parliamentary bid to taken no-deal off the table, although she was not a diehard Remainer in the mould of some of her Labour colleagues.) It is more than possible that she will be voted out at the next general election.

So with one potential replacement leader facing a fight to keep her Westminster seat and the other just embarking on a four-year term as Manchester mayor, the key to the Labour’s prospects must be for the current leader Starmer to galvanise the party himself. He would surely be better placed to do so with Cooper by his side on the front bench.

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