Several years have passed since Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls spent their Christmas Eve trying, and failing, to find Argos in Basingstoke, where they were spending the festive period with Cooper’s family. Having twice circumnavigated the town’s ringroad through grid-locked traffic and furious recriminations, the couple finally located the store and split up to choose their Christmas gifts.
“We ended up with identical presents,” Cooper says. “Each of us had bought the other one a satnav”. On the verge of the year of the most unreadable general election in many years, Labour also needs every navigational aid at its disposal.
It falls to Cooper, as shadow home secretary, to chart the course on the critical issues of security, policing and immigration. She also heads the Labour group assessing the UKIP challenge, and it is clear that she sees Nigel Farage as a potentially serious threat. Labour, she indicates, will react accordingly. Come the New Year, the party will be taking the attack to UKIP, exposing racism where it occurs and warning of the dangers to the NHS and worker protection.
“We need to take UKIP on. They’re promoting hostility and division, and we shall challenge all of that unpleasant politics. We shall not let him [Farage] get away with it … It is not racist to talk about immigration, but it is racist to say [as one local UKIP candidate is reported to have done] that Lenny Henry should get out of Britain. This is a right wing party which would be terrible for working people. They need to be exposed, not ignored.”
That decision to raise the tempo suggests both a mounting fear that working class voters will defect to UKIP and a hope that Farage will yet prove vulnerable. Cooper’s group believes that trust in the UKIP leader is thin and evidently supposes that Labour’s lost core voters may return if they are told that UKIP is a party of the right with a disdain for women and a dangerous disregard for the health service. If things are about to get nasty – and they are – then Cooper will not shirk this fight.
As I head up to her office for our interview, I bump into her in the lift, where Cooper is applying her make-up without a mirror. While this routine reflects a dearth of spare moments, it also indicates that the shadow home secretary may devote less time to the frivolities of life than her opposite number, Theresa May, who chose a lifetime’s subscription to Vogue as her luxury on Desert Island Discs.
What would Cooper pick? “I read a lot of magazines on trains when the children were younger. Ed would read novels but I couldn’t concentrate for long enough. I liked gardening magazines, which were a substitute for doing any gardening. I’ll read something like Red or Marie Claire or Cosmo. Probably those rather than Vogue.”
Such choices put Cooper squarely in the terrain of the ordinary parent, the rhythms of whose life she understands and whose interests and preoccupations she shares. Vicarious gardener she may be, but her ability to cultivate trouble for the government is never less than direct.
Not long ago, for example, Labour came within nine votes of gravely embarrassing the government over the European Arrest Warrant. Cooper, arguing that the motion was misleading, proposed that “the question be not now put”, an obscure procedural device. The Tory whips’ scrabble to get MPs back to Westminster to stop Cooper’s ingenious delaying tactic included plucking David Cameron, in white tie, from a Mansion House dinner.
In Cooper’s opinion, the attempt to endorse the European Arrest Warrant (which Labour backed) without actually mentioning it in the programme motion was “a complete parliamentary farce. How can you have a debate in which the home secretary stands at the despatch box saying this is a vote on something that it’s not? It’s just surreal.”
Do Cooper and May, both frequently tipped as future leaders of their parties, get on? “She doesn’t provide much in the way of briefing or information. The problem for her, for example on the European warrant, was being stubborn. But to become home secretary and to come through a Tory party [which has] very few women deserves respect.”
Shadow cabinet now has one fewer female face after the departure of Emily Thornberry, who stood down over a supposedly disparaging tweet showing a voter’s house draped in St George’s flags. Was Ed Miliband responsible for whipping up the resulting firestorm by sacking her so hastily?
“The day it happened, I was in Southampton with John Denham [Miliband’s former PPS]. John organises a big St George’s day event, with flags flying, because he’s very proud of English Labour. Emily herself has said she shouldn’t have tweeted [the picture]. She took the decision, and I think she’s done the right thing. In the end, it’s about being part of a whole country and not being divided. That is really important.”
Cooper’s own last speech on immigration was a paean to the “rich history” of Britain’s incomers “from the Huguenots in Spitalfields to the Trinidadians on our hospital wards.” But as ever, Labour’s warnings over a debate disfigured by “heat and noise” came larded with promises of toughness. The harsher overtones for which such speeches are invariably remembered risk ceding ground to UKIP, I suggest, as well as alienating voters who discern first that there is a problem and, secondly, that Labour can’t fix it.
“There’s a danger that this just becomes a really divisive, angry debate when we actually need to have a thoughtful, sensible, measured debate about immigration…You have to have sensible ways to [ensure] the system is fair because, if you don’t, you hand the whole debate over to the right. The three things that come up on the doorstep are jobs, the NHS and immigration.
“We have to have a progressive approach to immigration, and that means recognising that there are two right wing views. One says, let’s close the door, look inwards and be reactionary. The other says, have no controls because that’s in the interest of business.” But the ‘progressive’ approach, as framed by Cooper and Rachel Reeves, the shadow work and pensions secretary, includes measures stricter than current government plans
To debar migrants from claiming out-of-work benefits for two years after arrival would, for example, not only outflank the Tories but also fall foul of European law. How, then, does Labour propose to drive through such a measure? And, given that the party may invite disappointment by advancing unrealistic plans, should it even try?
“Britain needs immigration. And we’ve absolutely got to stay part of Europe and have the jobs and investment [that EU membership brings]. The danger is that we will lose the argument on Europe … if we can’t reassure people the system is actually fair. This is about making Europe work so that it doesn’t undermine social solidarity. If every country has to treat people who have just arrived exactly the same as those who have been there for five or 10 years, then all countries will just start to reduce all their social security.
“If our benefits are higher than France or Germany or Spain, that’s going to cause problems for migration. The consequence is that you could end up in a race to the bottom on social security. That is a nightmare. You end up undermining the very social solidarity that every country should have.”
But if you cut in-work benefits– as Labour also proposes and which would require an EU directive to be amended – why would firms not pick cheaper migrants with none of the administrative burden accompanying tax credits? “The idea of looking at in-work support again is to make sure you’re not effectively subsidising recruitment agencies who are bringing people in from abroad [knowing] they can immediately get support.
“The danger is that [the taxpayer] ends up subsidising low-skilled work and low-skilled migration. You’re only talking about people when they first arrive, not those who have been here for quite a long time.” Pressed on how long people would have to work before claiming in-work benefits, Cooper says: “You’re not talking about people who have been here for five years … It could be two years or something.”
She is quick to debunk the Tory suggestion that another part of her immigration strategy – hiring 1000 more border guards – rests on “catastrophically misunderstanding the system”. Critics claim that her idea of charging visitors £10 for fast-track permission to enter the UK would fund only 59 staff because few countries are affected by the visa waiver plan.
Cooper denies that extending the scheme would be too expensive to produce much revenue. “The idea that an electronic check will cost more than it actually raises is just desperate nonsense,” she says.
Labour, she promises, would look again at the restrictions whereby British citizens must be earning more than £18,000 before they can bring their spouses into the country. “There is a principle about people being able to support their families, but [the Tories] didn’t look at things like whether you could do a bond instead. Women with children, who might be working part-time, are unfairly disadvantaged by the system. We’ve said we want to review this, and we will look at alternative ways.”
On low pay, she cites a local factory “where three-quarters of the workers were eastern European and one quarter British. Because of the shifts, they didn’t speak to each other. The employers were doing nothing to get people integrated, and everyone was on these zero hours contracts. The Tories aren’t going anywhere near UKIP [on these] employment laws. If you allow immigration to be abused and wages undercut, it doesn’t matter what else you do. There will continue to be a huge problem and huge anxiety.”
“There’s more at stake in this election than in many I can remember. If you end up with either a Tory government or a Tory/UKIP government, then you’re talking about being out of Europe with a widening gap between rich and poor. We’ll become a more divided and pessimistic country. The Olympic spirit [of two years ago] feels like it is being pulled apart.”
But Ed Miliband’s gloomy suggestions that people have never had it so bad do not, I suggest, engender much hope. “Ed’s speech in the Olympic year was all about one nation. Last year’s was all about how Britain could be better, and this year he spoke about our six goals.” Does Cooper hope, one day, to lead her party into the future? “The only focus we can possibly have right now is to win the election, because there is so much at stake. I think Ed’s doing a really good job, and we’ve all got to be part of the team. I think that’s the only thing.”
Were Miliband to fail, however, it seems possible that Cooper and all her generation might sink with him, leaving the field clear to those not linked to the Blair/Brown years. Is this election, I wonder, the last great chance for her and her contemporaries? “You can’t be in politics and get into that whole speculative thing. The only thing we should be focused on is an election [with] so much at stake.”
Were Cooper ever to become leader, she would not lack backbone. Tough enough to do a punishing job while raising three young children, she is obdurate on issues such as security. A past advocate for the reinstatement of control orders on terror suspects, she recently supported the banning from Britain of the controversial ‘dating coach’, Julien Blanc.
Is it wise, I ask her, to ban even such a loathsome visitor, given the dangers of restricting freedom to express a view, however reprehensible? “The issue with Julien Blanc was evidence of what looked like him actually inciting sexual assault. There are all sorts of people who might have awful views I disagree with, but it’s a separate issue if you are actually promoting sexual assault or violence against women. You have to protect liberty and security. You need strong powers, but you also need checks and balances.” The security services, in her view, “ought to have much stronger oversight.”
On crime, she takes seriously the argument that falling crime figures obscure a hidden wave of offences, such as cyber-crime and fraud. In particular, Cooper is alarmed by online abuse of children and by reports that the National Crime Agency (NCA) has uncovered many thousands of cases that are not advanced because of lack of capacity. “There is a really serious problem here. This is the next scandal.
“Crime is changing and a lot of it is shifting online. The scale of police cuts [makes] it really hard to see how the police will cope, particularly on child protection.” Initially it was reported that 10,000 suspects had been uncovered by the NCA, but no action was taken, partly for fear that the courts would be overloaded and that the prison system be unable to cope.
“Now it’s over 20,000 [cases]. As we understand it, this is about circulating and downloading abusive images of children. The NCA estimate that a significant proportion of those [involved] in online abuse will also be engaging in contact abuse, but we don’t know how that links.
“You need to investigate all those cases to find out how many of them have contact with children. We’re being told it is impossible to investigate all these cases. When 120,000 people are arrested every year for theft, the idea that you can’t arrest child abuse suspects shows to me that the priorities are wrong. This is a new and growing crime, and children’s safety is at risk here.”
The authorities, she says, “are continually stonewalling. I do not understand why Theresa May will not engage with this.” Is Cooper suggesting that pursuing those suspected of drug offences or theft is to plough resources into the wrong things?
“The police always have to make decisions about priorities,” she says before advocating savings on procurement and “getting rid of police and crime commissioners.” In the meantime, she will continue to press for a proper investigation of what she believes to be an all-but-ignored epidemic of child abuse. “For too long, children weren’t listened too or believed, and we should not make that mistake again because this is online and virtual. There have been too many historic mistakes about not listening to children.”
Effective in many spheres, Cooper is at her most eloquent on women and children. Raised in a technocratic school of politics, she also possesses a warmth that more machine-like politicians could not emulate. Although she does not dwell on her family life, she hints at the clash of cultures in the Balls/Cooper household in the fraught run-up to the autumn statement, “with the news on at one end of the room, Ed practising for his Grade Four piano exam at the other and both being overridden by I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.”
Of all this year’s contestants, she preferred the banished Edwina Currie. “You’ve got to admire the way she dealt with those bugs and creepy crawlies.” Yvette Cooper will be aiming to adopt a similarly brisk approach in the Westminster jungle during the critical months ahead.