Polls and oddsmakers agree that the victor will be Labour’s far-left summer darling, Jeremy Corbyn, whose unlikely rise spawned a movement of activism for a more full-throated opposition to Conservative austerity policies.
Cooper probably will not win, it’s true.
The Corbynmania phenomenon is deep and resilient, and it’s clear that Corbyn’s understated charms, ideological consistency and his willingness to contrast sharply against the governing Conservative Party have brought thousands of enthusiastic voters to his cause — none less than Harry Potter himself (or at least Daniel Radcliffe).
But for all the real excitement that Corbyn’s leadership campaign has generated, Cooper is the only candidate who emerges from the leadership race looking like a potential prime minister, and unlike her opponents Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall, she will end the race with her reputation enhanced, especially after taking a bold stand last week on admitting more refugees to the United Kingdom.
Cooper’s chances for the leadership, though slim, aren’t non-existent. If no candidate wins over 50% of the vote outright, Cooper will receive many of Kendall’s second-preference votes. If Cooper edges out Burnham for second place, which now seems likely, she could clip Corbyn to the leadership if Burnham’s supporters disproportionately give their second preferences to Cooper (and not to Corbyn).
Articulate and poised, Cooper was already a rising star as shadow home secretary, capably challenging Conservative home secretary Theresa May. An MP since the 1997 wave that brought Tony Blair and New Labour to power, she served as chief secretary to the treasury and as work and pensions secretary under former prime minister Gordon Brown. In particular, she won admiration across the political spectrum for her support of anti-stalking legislation and the creation of a new office for domestic violence. But Cooper spent much of the past five years overshadowed by her husband, the pugilistic shadow chancellor Ed Balls, who contested the leadership in 2010 and finished in third place (behind both Miliband brothers). When Balls unexpectedly lost his seat in the May 2015 general election, it was suddenly his wife whose leadership aspirations were on the fast track. Born in Scotland, 46-year-old Cooper has at least some claim to the case that she can win back supporters from the Scottish National Party (SNP), which now dominates Scottish politics.
When the leadership ballots were first mailed to Labour members, starting on August 10, there was a sense that Cooper still trailed Burnham. But in the final two weeks of the voting period, Cooper began to emerge as the chief alternative to Corbyn.
Voters first took notice when Cooper stood up to some of the less orthodox elements of Corbynomics, cloaking herself as the truly progressive voice in the contest:
“Quantitive easing to pay for infrastructure now the economy is growing is really bad economics,” said Cooper in the speech, extracts from which were released in advance. “Quantitive easing was a special measure when the economy collapsed, liquidity dried up, interest rates fell as low as they could go. But printing money year after year to pay for things you can’t afford doesn’t work – and no good Keynesian would ever call for it. History shows it hits your currency, hits investment, pushes up inflation and makes it harder not easier to get the sustainable growth in a global economy we need to tackle poverty and support our public services.”
Cooper acknowledged that at a time of global change when the “old parties don’t seem to be working”, people were attracted by the kind of “subversive” politics that Corbyn was offering.
Cooper told May that she should contact the European commission, “be British, be bold” and offer to share responsibility with Greece and Italy for the refugees who had reached Europe. “We cannot stand on the sidelines and watch while this happens, we cannot be the generation that turns our backs. We need a bigger plan,” she said.
Her immediate and unwavering stand almost certainly pressured prime minister David Cameron into accepting up to 20,000 additional Syrian refugees earlier this week, and she has urged the Cameron government to accept up to 10,000 refugees in the coming months alone, challenging Cameron to meet the British standard for refugees in the 1930s.
Along the way, Cooper also won some impressive endorsements from among the most well-respected (if not beloved) figures inside Labour. That includes Brown himself, whose contributions to stabilizing the British and global financial systems in 2008 and 2009 are still under-recognized. It also includes Alan Johnson, one of Labour’s most beloved figures, a former mailman and union leader who ended up in the heart of the New Labour high command as home secretary in the Brown government and (briefly) shadow chancellor under former leader Ed Miliband.
Burnham, who steadily rose through the Westminster ranks, ran as a candidate from outside Westminster. As if that weren’t baffling enough, Burnham personified all the glib ‘all-things-to-all-people’ waffling that voters find so inauthentic. A genuine Liverpool accent failed to make up for the fact that Burnham never fully seemed to stand for anything. Burnham fed those doubts as he moved steadily to the left when Corbyn unexpectedly emerged as a frontrunner in the leadership race this summer.
Many of the most despised Blairites, however, ultimately supported Kendall, who suffered scorn throughout the race from Labour voters as a barely-disguised Tory. Even with encouragement from shadow business secretary (and short-lived leadership aspirant) Chuka Umunna, former foreign secretary David Miliband and former home secretaries John Reid and Jacqui Smith, Kendall faced far more scorn than any of the four finalists for the Labour leadership. Alas, she is likely to place far behind in last place, a death knell for ‘Blairite’ centrism and the New Labour banner, which essentially dominated Labour’s political orientation since the mid-1990s.
But even if Corbyn does win on Saturday, he will face a tough road ahead, starting with a parliamentary party that is, at best, skeptical of his leadership and, at worst, outright hostile. Many of the party’s heavy-hitters have already ruled out serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, including Cooper. If Corbyn wins, he will face near-constant pressure from Labour’s moderates and, if the past is any guide, perpetual plots to terminate his leadership far before the next general election in 2020. And that’s just within his own party — the Conservatives are certain to target Corbyn and three decades of statements and positions far outside the British political mainstream.
No one knows when the next leadership contest will take place. If Corbyn wins on Saturday and eventually falters, the party will not necessarily turn to Cooper to lead Labour into the 2020 general election. Other candidates, like Dan Jarvis and Tristram Hunt, will certainly be waiting in the wings. But, on the basis of her leadership campaign, Cooper will be a credible alternative in the future in a way that Burnham and Kendall will not.