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How Yvette Cooper Raised Her Game To Tackle Corbynmania

It’s been a game of two halves. BuzzFeed News looks at Yvette Cooper's battle with Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership.

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Yvette Cooper thanks campaign staff at her London campaign office on Wednesday.
Stefan Rousseau / PA Wire

Yvette Cooper thanks campaign staff at her London campaign office on Wednesday.

The Labour leadership campaign has dragged on for four long months. But many believe that for Yvette Cooper, it began less than four weeks ago. On 13 August, the day before ballot papers were sent out, the shadow home secretary made a speech in Manchester that finally turned heads.

She laid into her rival Jeremy Corbyn, the rank outsider turned runaway frontrunner, accusing him of offering "old solutions to old problems" on the economy and foreign affairs. In untypically blunt language, she conceded that her speech "may lose me votes – but it needs to be said".

This new Yvette was a strange phenomenon. For months, she had taken part in endless hustings without saying very much at all. In late July, she was grilled by an exasperated John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "We don't know where Yvette Cooper is coming from," he said. "What is your direction?" And he was still baffled by the end of the interview.

Cooper, who has been on the front bench for 16 years under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and Ed Miliband, had struggled to articulate her personal vision for Labour's future. It was in part her cautious tendency not to rock the boat at the start of the contest – along with fellow contenders Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall – that allowed Corbyn to gain momentum with voters.

Cooper with leadership frontrunner Jeremy Corbyn in a Channel 4 News hustings.
Leon Neal / AFP / Getty Images

Cooper with leadership frontrunner Jeremy Corbyn in a Channel 4 News hustings.

After the general election, Cooper's supporters thought her main barrier to the leadership would be Burnham, or Chuka Umunna before he quit the race. Now she is fighting for second place to a left-wing veteran MP who has been on the back benches for over 30 years.

One Labour HQ staffer told BuzzFeed News: "I've not met any senior Labour person who isn't working on the basis that Jeremy Corbyn has already won.

"In Yvette's mind she just wants to come a comfortable, impressive second. Losing to Jeremy Corbyn in the current circumstances is just part of history. Everyone's going to write that there was a wave of momentum away from New Labour towards the anti-politics candidate but that Yvette Cooper was the obvious choice."

It may well be too late to win the contest but she's not going down without a fight. Her profile has soared in the last two weeks after she led calls for government action on the refugee crisis engulfing Europe. Publicly, her team remain confident that she could still clinch victory.

They believe that a far bigger proportion of voters than expected only sent their ballot papers off in the last week and that Cooper will benefit from that. If she does beat Burnham to come second in the first round, and Corbyn fails to get more than 50% of the vote, she will also benefit from the likely loser Liz Kendall's second preferences being redistributed.

Cooper, Corbyn, Liz Kendall, and Andy Burnham.
Carl Court / Getty Images

Cooper, Corbyn, Liz Kendall, and Andy Burnham.

Jon Ashworth, a Cooper backer and Labour MP for Leicester South, said there has been a "massive shift" among Labour voters towards her in the last few weeks. "I think she can hold her head up high, she's shown great integrity and courage," he told BuzzFeed News. "It definitely seems to me that a lot of undecided voters in the last week have switched to Yvette over her leadership over the refugee crisis." But others from rival camps insist that Cooper has simply been in the right place at the right time; as shadow home secretary, she happens to be on top of the biggest story of the moment.

Just a month ago, some Labour figures were worried that Cooper wasn't grabbing enough headlines. One of her supporters, MP John Mann, told us in early August: "Yvette's an easy sell but her campaign needs a good kicking. If she times it well with a huge profile next week when the ballot papers go out, that could be significant. Because people have to take the battle to Corbyn."

And she did. After joining her husband, former shadow chancellor Ed Balls, and three children on holiday for a few days, she came back to the contest ready for action – taking the fight directly to Corbyn. Later, as the refugee crisis began pricking the national consciousness, Cooper used a speech in London on 1 September to call on David Cameron to open up the UK's borders to 10,000 people fleeing conflict in the Middle East.

Her plea tapped into a change in public mood that the prime minister had not yet registered – one that was crystallised hours later when devastating photos of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy who drowned with his mother and brother while crossing the Mediterranean sea, hit the front pages.

Paul Ellis / AFP / Getty Images

Meanwhile there has been a subtle shift in the way she presents herself as a personality. Her use of social media is more personal than before, as she hits back at trolls and rivals. (The #CooperTroopers hashtag on Twitter hasn't quite taken off but she's given it a good go.)

Earlier this month – after rival Andy Burnham said it wasn't the right time for a woman leader of the Labour party – Cooper tweeted that she would love to see a female Doctor Who "obvs only if time is right". It was accompanied by a wink emoji. And on Thursday, the day the ballot closed, her leadership account tweeted a string of emojis to symbolise the end of the race.

So what is behind this gear change? Early in the campaign, Labour MPs were still licking their wounds from the scale of their general election defeat. Yet Cooper was still reeling not only from the impact on the party but also the immense shock of her husband losing his seat in Morley and Outwood. The countless leadership hustings early on in the race didn't help, they just seemed to sap Cooper's energy.

It was only when Corbyn's mass appeal became apparent that she upped her game. One party staffer told BuzzFeed News: "I think some people just take a while to hit their stride. There's just been a bit of an acceptance that she's probably lost and feels slightly liberated. She thinks: 'Well, I may as well say what I think now.'"


Cooper is clearly far more comfortable in the Commons chamber taking on the Tories – especially her nemesis, home secretary Theresa May – than out on the road, selling herself as a leader. The party staffer said: "I suspect that Yvette gets a lot more energy, and all credit to her for this, out of a political, policy-driven situation than riding around in a car and talking about her first dance with Ed Balls."

In an interview with the Huffington Post last month, Cooper admitted that she felt "a bit too English" to talk about herself and she was used to saying "we" rather than "I". An MP close to Cooper told BuzzFeed: "She is naturally a modest and private person. This stuff doesn't come naturally to her."

Yet the last few weeks have seen fresh life breathed into her campaign, giving her a major confidence boost. As Corbyn prepares to take the stage tomorrow, Cooper could well be kicking herself that she didn't push harder from the beginning.

Emily Ashton is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Emily Ashton at

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