Yvette Cooper interview: Labour can make a progressive argument for ending free movement
Her husband may have sparkled on the dance floor, but now Yvette Cooper is waltzing into the political spotlight as the new chair of the Home Affairs Committee.
2016 will probably go down as the most seismic 12 months in British politics since the Second World War. A prime minister toppled, a vote to leave the European Union, a shadow cabinet in open revolt against its leader. And, tragically, an MP murdered in cold blood as she worked in her constituency.
But when the history books are written, there will also be space set aside for a former frontbencher taking part in a celebrity dance competition. At a time when the nation needed a smile put back on its face, Ed Balls doing a salsa to Gangnam Style duly delivered.
Against all the odds – and the judges’ wishes – the ex-Labour bruiser made it to week 10 of the competition. And there in the crowd every Saturday night, cheering along with the rest of the country, was his wife, Yvette Cooper.
“It’s been brilliant,” she explains while posing for photographs in her Commons office. “I always thought he would enjoy it. What’s been brilliant is how everyone else has enjoyed it as well.
“Some people have said they’ve seen a different side to Ed, but if you ever went on a visit with him to a school, he would have everybody in the sandpit.”
Balls – unceremoniously dumped by the voters of Morley and Outwood in the 2015 election – has seen his personal approval ratings soar as a result of this fresh exposure to the British public. Not that Cooper needs to see the poll numbers to realise how her husband has cemented his reputation as, in the words of Strictly’s head judge Len Goodman, “the people’s champion”.
She says: “We both went in to get fish and chips on Friday night and they had put up a picture of him and [his Strictly dance partner] Katya. They said they were saving the picture for a little girl who had been watching it and really wanted the picture.
“I hadn’t realised how much kids really enjoy Strictly. I think there’s something about grown men behaving like kids – he was enjoying it, so everybody else did. There was also a sense of the British supporting the underdog, which has been really good.”
But as Ed Balls prepares for the rigours of the Strictly Come Dancing UK tour, Cooper is tackling the issues that are likely to dominate British politics in 2017 and beyond. As the newly-elected chair of the home affairs select committee, she has wasted no time in launching an inquiry into immigration – seen by most observers as the key factor why the UK voted for Brexit.
The suggestion that there has not been enough discussion about the topic may be rejected by some, but Cooper insists her committee’s probe is essential as Theresa May prepares to enter negotiations with her EU counterparts next year.
“Over the next few years, one of the biggest issues the whole country is going to be dealing with is what happens with Brexit – how it’s implemented and what the detail means,” she says.
“I think the select committees are going to be really important as part of that, in terms of scrutinising the detail and trying to pull together cross-party consensus on different kinds of issues.
“We know there will be issues around immigration and security that will be really important, so to me it felt like an opportunity to do something practical and have an impact on some of the issues the country is going to be dealing with.
“I’ve done public meetings in my constituency and across the country on immigration and often we talk about immigration as if it’s all the same, but we don’t have much discussion about different kinds of immigration.
“Around three-quarters of the population wants to see lower immigration, but more than half will say that immigration is still good for the economy. When you give people three options – do you want people to travel and work wherever they want to; do you want to stop immigration, at least for a while; or do you think we need immigration but it needs to be controlled and managed? – almost everybody in the meetings that I’ve held will go for the middle option, but they want a discussion about what kinds of controls.”
None of the parties, Cooper says, has successfully addressed the apparent contradiction at the heart of the public’s views on immigration. And that includes her own.
With Jeremy Corbyn and shadow home secretary Diane Abbott implacably opposed to any restrictions on immigration, it has been left to some of Cooper’s party colleagues – most notably Andy Burnham and Hilary Benn – to make the Labour case for controls.
Cooper is clear what side of the argument she is on, saying there is a “progressive” case to be made for limits to be imposed.
“I just take a different view to Jeremy and Diane on this one,” she says. “When you look at the way that agencies have been able to draw in a lot of low-skilled workers and then have employers use that to undercut wages and jobs, I think it does cause problems for economies.
“There has been a big problem around exploitation, and that is linked to being able to have a reserve pool of labour without any restrictions, and that’s not fair on anyone. That’s why I think you can make a progressive argument to say that free movement hasn’t been working for the British economy in a way that’s fair. My starting point would be different from Jeremy and Diane’s.”
Cooper also rejects Abbott’s suggestion that any policy which seeks to control immigration is an attempt to turn Labour into “Ukip-lite”. She says: “I think we’ve got to take Ukip on. The approach they have taken is to make false promises to whip up fear and hostility. Immigration is really important for Britain, it just needs to be controlled and managed in a way that’s fair.
“I think it’s possible to be positive about what the economy needs and also talk about reform at the same time. Ukip is never going to do that, but equally that doesn’t mean that we should ignore the issue or just say that people don’t have real concerns, because they do.”
As well as the usual evidence-taking sessions, the committee will also hold a series of public meetings as part of its inquiry and is likely to publish a series of reports to help inform the government of the public’s views.
Cooper adds: “At this stage, I don’t know what the outcome will be, but to me it feels like nobody else is doing this. If we look back in five years and no one has even tried to have a thoughtful debate on immigration, we will be just as divided and it will be as unresolved as ever.”
The committee is also investigating the rise in hate crime across the country, a problem which burst into the public consciousness when Jo Cox was killed in broad daylight by the white supremacist Thomas Mair.
Cooper admits that she is now more careful about her movements, and how she publicises them. “I have never felt threatened in 20 years as an MP,” she said. “I never thought about it, doing events around the country, so it’s been hard to think about it now.
“My constituency office had the window smashed on the night of the referendum. You don’t want to ever let it prevent you doing the normal constituency things, but I don’t tend to advertise on social media things I am going to in advance. Police advice is to say where you’ve been after, but don’t flag it up. The people you’re going to see know you’re going to see them, so you don’t have to tell the world in advance.”
The Brexit vote, Cooper says, gave some people with extremist views a green light to act on them. She says: “We’ve seen increased racism and Islamophobia, but also increased homophobic hate crimes and attacks, and disability hate crimes as well. Hope Not Hate [the anti-extremism group] said it wasn’t more people becoming involved, but those with racist views feeling they had more license.” So Cooper welcomes the government’s decision this week to proscribe the neo-Nazi group National Action, and says more action should be taken against the far-right.
It wasn’t just her constituency office window that was damaged the night of the referendum, however. The link between Labour and many of its traditional voters – who defied the party leadership to vote Leave – was also fractured, perhaps permanently.
Cooper says the party must make clear that it accepts the result, and now focus its energies in acting for the whole country, not just the 52% or 48%.
“My constituency voted two-thirds to leave,” she says. “The result didn’t surprise me. I think we’ve got to respect it and get on with getting the best deal, and for me that has to be both a progressive and a patriotic deal. That means we’ve got to be the voice and the people who are pulling the country together at a time when it is divided. If a party is only speaking for one half of the country, you’re not going to get a sustainable deal that people can support for generations to come.”
The divide in the country is not just between Brexiters and Remainers, Cooper insists. There is also a fissure between those living in the relatively prosperous cities and the towns and villages which make up the rest of the country. That presents a particular challenge to Labour, where most of those in senior roles represent London seats.
“Labour and the shadow cabinet have been seen as a London and metropolitan party, but that’s not where Labour’s history is,” she says. “It was very much about the industrial towns and small communities across the north and the Midlands. Every time we have been successful, it’s when we’ve been seen as a party for the whole of the country. I think that is a risk for us and that’s one of the things we’ve got to really concentrate on doing.”
So is Cooper – the MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford – the woman to turn around her party’s fortunes? She refuses to rule out another tilt at the top job, but insists now is the time for Labour MPs to accept their lot and get on with it.
“We’ve had two leadership elections in the space of 18 months, we just can’t make that our focus right now,” she says. “None of us knows where we’re going to be in the future, but we’ve got to pull together now and not have navel-gazing and talk of leadership elections.
“It’s not what we should be focusing on, especially as we might have an election in the spring. It seems less likely now because it looks like [Theresa May’s] dug her heels in, but it also becomes very confusing once the Brexit negotiations have started. But who knows?”
Who, indeed. Perhaps Yvette will get the last dance after all.
This article was first published in The House Magazine.