Yvette Cooper’s campaign is just a string of platitudes
Yvette Cooper is a B candidate in a C candidate race. In a sane world, she wouldn't get a look-in to a contest for the leadership of Britain's main opposition party. But this is not a sane world, so she is probably, overall, the most intellectually impressive of the candidates.
Andy Burnham has no intellect to speak of at all, Jeremy Corbyn is a warmed-up meal from the 1970s without any of the political ingenuity to make that a palatable dining option in 2015, and Liz Kendall is a tactic in search of a strategy.
There is a sliver – one wouldn't want to put it any higher than that – of intellectual substance to Cooper. Which is why it was a disappointment to listen to her Today programme interview this morning. Unfortunately, it typified her approach to the campaign.
It's not inadequacy which leads her to behave this way. It's cynicism. There's plenty of evidence that Cooper is a relatively interesting political figure. She just refuses to reveal it.
Take her response to George Osborne's plans to cut tax credits. "They are actually discouraging parents from working harder," she said. This was exactly the right response. Cooper understood that the most effective argument against a Tory policy is based on Tory premises. Instead of talking solely about fairness, it was best to focus on the argument that a cut to tax credits would be a disincentive to getting people into work.
As shadow home secretary she cut a difficult pathway opposing Theresa May's snoopers' charter plans. She did not go far enough for people like me, who would have had her oppose them outright, but she was no walkover either. She branded the changes her government counterpart wanted as "too vague", "too widely drawn" and putting "too much power directly into the hands of the home secretary".
She accused the Tories and Lib Dems of having a "caricatured argument" over security and liberty – a line which I suspect is more in keeping with the British public's instinct than those of us on one side of the debate or the other. And then she threw her support behind the government's independent reviewer of terrorism legislation when he produced a highly critical report on the government's plans. Here was a shadow home secretary basing her position on the evidence available to her.
She confessed Labour had been wrong to try to over-extend detention without charge and she criticised the party's record on surveillance and stop-and-search. In power she would probably have been more authoritarian. But you can't judge people on what you suspect they'd do in an imaginary future. Her record in opposition was relatively admirable.
Just before the election, Labour signed up to a time limit in immigration detention centres, to bring it into line with other European countries. Cooper branded the current system inefficient and "deeply scarring" for detainees. Previously, she pledged to do more to end the detention of women who had experienced torture and sexual violence – something the Home Office says doesn't happen but which we know does.
Cooper is not particularly impressive and she is certainly not charting a new course for centre-left parliamentary politics. But there is evidence in her record of intellectual smarts and moral perceptiveness. Not enough to get particularly excited about perhaps, but enough to expect some sort of content from her leadership campaign.
Instead, she has spent it trying to say nothing of any meaning whatsoever, in a bid to secure the leadership by being harmless.
Her interview on the Today programme this morning was basically just a string of clichés, linked together by a contrived and self-consciously saintly tone. Whatever the topic, her response was defined by an almost military sense of inoffensiveness.
On female leadership, she thought it was time "we smashed the last glass ceiling". She added:
"We should shake up the old boys' network in Westminster. We've got to be true to Labour's values but also strong enough to take on David Cameron – who, frankly, I think has got a woman problem – but also strong enough to win for everyone in the country."
"Strong enough to win for everyone in the country". That's her solution to Labour's moment of crisis. Trying to extrapolate meaning from it is like trying to get full by drinking water.
What else did Labour have to do? "We’ve got to pull together." What kind of society did she want? "A stronger economy and a fairer Britain". It was just one platitude after another. The last was stolen from the Lib Dems. She evidently felt they'd had a great election campaign and offered a model for her to emulate.
She wouldn't even answer if she felt closer to Tony Blair or Jeremy Corbyn and seemed to suggest the question was somehow unfair. She couldn’t make her mind up on whether she would serve in a Corbyn Cabinet. She wouldn't rule it out, but it was "unlikely", she said.
The only time she said anything decisive was on the welfare bill abstention, which she admitted was "badly handled". Whose fault was it? She wouldn't say. She's willing to plunge the knife into Harriet Harman, but not go so far as name her.
Cooper may be the first politician to ever stand on a non-politics ticket. There is simply no content there. Her intention, we presume, is to upset so few people that she can tot up enough second preference votes to win the leadership.
It is not just tedious. It is disrespectful to the members of the party she wishes to lead. They are entitled to have some idea of what she would do as leader. Like the Tories refusing to disclose welfare cuts before the election, Cooper is refusing to divulge even her broadest political values ahead of the leadership vote. It is a supremely discourteous and undemocratic way to conduct herself.
The Labour party wonders why Corbyn is doing so well but the answer is there to be seen in Cooper's behaviour. Love him or loath him, at least you know what he stands for. Cooper is merely ambition seeking a justification. If she ever did stand for anything, she certainly refuses to divulge it now.