What does Yvette Cooper believe? John Humphrys was desperately trying to find this out on the Today programme this morning, and got nowhere. The Labour leadership contender at least showed us that as party chief, she would be steadfast and calm under fire, but she clearly didn’t fancy telling anyone what she stood for any time soon. Neither, it seems, is she particularly keen on talking about what she offers that is dramatically different to her party’s offer in 2015. Humphrys was very keen to find out which way she might move the Labour party, but she wouldn’t bite.
Why won’t Cooper talk about the direction in which she wants to take the Labour party? Well, it’s not unreasonable for a leadership candidate to refuse to say the words ‘I will move Labour right’: Liz Kendall has been clear she would do that but hasn’t used those words either. But Cooper’s refusal to spell out the differences between the party she envisages leading into the 2020 election and the one Ed Miliband led into the 2015 election is striking.
This is how she has conducted her entire leadership campaign. Indeed, at the start of the process, I met up with one of her ardent supporters and asked, mostly to satisfy my own curiosity, what it was that Cooper believed. I could see her appeal: she has tonnes of government experience, she’s authoritative, she knows how to floor an experienced Tory Cabinet Minister when she needs to. But I couldn’t work out what she actually thought. The Cooper supporter paused, and for a minute I thought I was going to get the answer to the question. ‘Well, there is that,’ they said, as though I’d pointed out a mild flaw along the lines of her not having held a certain frontbench brief, or that she hadn’t yet talked about a key policy area.
The reason Cooper’s supporters are so relaxed about her not setting out her philosophy, her personal mission, her beliefs more clearly is that this is the kind of thing that might alienate sections of the party that she needs to win support from if she is to become leader. She may well want to move the party to the right – though very few politicians, unless they are George Osborne in the middle of a left-wing land grab, will ever talk about where they are moving their party – but she knows that a lot of Labour members don’t want this. This may not just be Cooper’s approach but Burnham’s too. Both know they need to convince one electorate before they turn to the other, bigger, ultimately vastly more important one. And that’s why not saying too much about what you believe is a sign of hard-headed pragmatism, not woolliness.