It is easy to be cynical about politicians – to think that they are in it for themselves, that they will say anything to get into power, and don’t know anything about the “real” world.
But when you’re sharing the back seat of a three-door Fiat Punto with a politician who is choked up and on the verge of tears, it sort of makes you reassess.
When that politician is Yvette Cooper – the Labour leadership candidate and shadow Home Secretary – it is all the more surprising.
We’d met earlier in the day at one of her campaign events, and I was interviewing her en route to her next destination a Labour club in Deeside, North Wales. Then we pull up in a car park by the venue, and Cooper begins telling me about a woman she met on the campaign trail in Pontefract. It’s a typical story politicians like to tell when they want to illustrate a wider point.
“She came to the door in her pyjamas – it was about six o’clock on a Friday evening,” she says. “She told me she was sorry but she was about to go to bed, because she goes to bed early so she doesn’t have to turn the heating on. She was paying the bedroom tax and couldn’t afford it.”
Labour leadership: The Contenders
Labour leadership: The Contenders
1/2 Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn started off as the rank outsider in the race to replace Ed Miliband and admitted he was only standing to ensure the left of the party was given a voice in the contest. But the Islington North MP, who first entered Parliament in 1983, is now the firm favourite to be elected Labour leader on September 12 after a surge in left-wing supporters signing up for a vote.
2/2 Andy Burnham
Andy Burnham started out as the front-runner in the leadership election, seen as the candidate of the left until Jeremy Corbyn entered the race. The former Cabinet minister has found himself squeezed between the growing populism of Corbyn’s radical agenda and the moderate, centre-left Yvette Cooper, not knowing which way to turn. It has attracted damaging labels such as ‘flip-flop Andy’, most notably over his response to the Government’s Welfare Bill. He remains hopeful he can win enough second preference votes to take him over the 50 per cent threshold ahead of Corbyn.
Cooper says she asked the woman if she had thought about moving to a smaller house where her rent would be less, but the lady told her she needed the space for her grandson who stayed two nights a week when his mother worked nights.
“I had a whole conversation with her about how she was managing. She said it was fine – she didn’t have money for food for the next few days, although her daughter would come in and she would probably be all right.
“I left thinking I don’t know what to do to help. When we had a Labour government, there was always something you could do.
“If all else failed you could go to a government minister and say, ‘Oh my God, this is happening, what are we going to do about it?’ I went back and said here are the details of the local food bank.”
She pauses and adds: “I came into politics to use politics to make a difference. And in the end, all I could do was to take her the details of a local charity. You ought to be able to do something. Politics should be able to do something to help.”
At that point, I return to a theme we had been talking about earlier – asking Cooper what a Jeremy Corbyn win in the Labour leadership contest would mean for the lady.
“I think it’s letting her down,” she begins. Then she pauses. “I think we already let her down. We let her down at this election. So it’s, you know...”
She breaks off and visibly crumples – struggling to get the words out. There is a long pause as she tries to compose herself and the car seems even smaller. Then in a whisper that is barely audible on the tape when I listen back to it later, she adds: “I don’t want to let people down.”
A few moments later – after wiping her eyes with a tissue handed over by an aide (inappropriately with the pattern of a £50 note printed on it) she’s back to her old self.
She heads off to do a clip for the local TV news and then goes straight into an hour-long question and answer session with local party activists.
I watch her perform. She is feisty, passionate and confident – not a hint of what’s just gone before. So, what to make of what I’ve just witnessed?
Part of it must be simple dog-tiredness from a long gruelling leadership campaign. Trying to become leader of the Opposition is not a glamorous business; it involves long days speaking to small groups of people in musty halls, grabbing a sandwich where you can, and fielding endless impertinent questions from journalists (“How embarrassed were you when Ed Balls said he was a long slow burner in bed?” and so on).
You are always on show, watching what you say and how you look, and having to be cheerful and optimistic, whatever you feel inside. It must be exhausting.
But in this case, I think there is something more.
The day before we met, Cooper made a speech that stood out compared to some of her previous, more anodyne and overly cautious contributions in the campaign.
She rounded on Jeremy Corbyn – the surprise front-runner – saying his policies would consign the party to an irrelevant pressure group that could never win an election.
“We cannot condemn today’s five year olds to spend all their childhood under a Tory government,” she said.
“We can’t just luxuriate in our own righteousness out on the sidelines. We have a responsibility to change the world or what’s the point of us at all?”
It was a good speech, with a coherent argument, and you felt she really believed in what she was saying – not always a given with politicians.
You get the sense the Corbyn ascendency has really made Cooper think about what it is for her to be “Labour”. And to think about it in a way she has probably never done as explicitly before since she worked for John Smith in the 1990s up to becoming a cabinet minister.
It has forced her to define herself ideologically – rather than assuming that all Labour needed to do for the next five years was achieve one more managerial push with a more plausible leader than Ed Miliband.
As she put it earlier in the interview: “This is not just about the next few months. This is about the next 10 years. It just reaches the point where it focuses your mind and you think we are in danger of writing off the next election now.
“I already feel the sense of frustration that we let people down in the last election and the idea that we would let people down again – not just for this five years but for the next five years as well.
“That just feels too much just to stand by and be polite about this and not speak out.”
But, I ask her, doesn’t she and other identikit “newish Labour” figures share some of the blame for the rise of Corbyn? Put bluntly, if they were more inspiring, there would be no need for him.
“You can get caught in a soundbite vortex,” she accepts. “You can get stuck in that sense of what are the simple slogans or phrases that you use, and then you don’t end up having an honest conversation about what are people really thinking or talking about.”
But she adds: “I think there is a bit of a myth that’s been created. A myth that one candidate in this race has principles and the other three don’t. That one candidate in this race answers straight questions and the other three don’t. I don’t think that’s right, actually.
So what are Cooper’s principles and policies?
Understandably, so far in an election that she wants to win, they are a little vague. But she has identified that Labour needs to reinvent itself as a party fighting for the interests of workers in high-tech industries, as it once did in old-style heavy industry.
As she puts it: “There are millions of people of working age who don’t even know how to Google. Everything is being digitalised. How are you even going to apply for jobs if you don’t have those skills for the future?”
She is more libertarian than Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were and would champion an equality agenda rather than just paying lip service to it.
On tax and spending, she sticks with the Blair-Brown consensus: support business to make money, tax those businesses, then redistribute the proceeds of growth. It’s what allowed Labour to help the lady in Pontefract.
But unless Corbyn can be stopped, all that is an irrelevance. And you suspect she knows that the chances of stopping him now are remote.
Thus the emotion. Not so much, I think, for her own sake – but because she sees it as undoing of everything she has tried to achieve.Reuse content