Yvette Cooper (Photo: Getty Images)
Yvette Cooper (Photo: Getty Images)

POLITICS

Yvette Cooper on Brexit, child refugees and women facing abuse online

The Labour MP talks to Emily Jupp about Reclaim the Internet, her initiative to make the web safer and better for women

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By Emily Jupp on

Yvette Cooper’s large office is in a refurbished 18th-century building, looking out onto Parliament Street and a Westminster Tube exit. In the far corner, by the window, is a pin board with a birthday card showing a cartoonish image of her and her husband, the former cabinet minister Ed Balls, dancing together happily. “It’s about two years old and it is based on the dancing we did at the party conference,” she says, smiling.  

Ed Balls is doing a fair bit of the childcare, in between lecturing at Harvard and Kings. “He does all of the cooking in our house but he is away at Harvard at the moment and when Daddy is away, it’s ready meals. The kids groan when it’s me cooking,” she says.

We sit down in two squishy green armchairs on opposite sides of a round table, by an empty fireplace. Looking over us, above the mantelpiece is a huge print of a work by Manchester artist Charlotte Newson of Emmeline Pankhurst. It’s a composite image, made from thousands of tiny photos sent in by the public of women they admire. The image includes mini-portraits of well-known faces like Marilyn Monroe, Constance Briscoe, Judi Dench and Buffy the Vampire Slayer but overwhelmingly the portraits are unknowns: mums, grandmothers, friends. The work is entitled: “Women Like You”.

But more than 100 years after the Suffragettes campaigned to get votes for women, there is still deep-seated inequality in parliament. Currently only a third of MPs in the Commons are women (191 out of 650 members).

“In Labour, half our new MPs elected in 2015 were women. Our challenge now is where are the women coming forward to stand for Mayor or for Parliamentary Commissioner. There is not enough being done and that includes our party, but I do think the other parties need to do a lot more as well.”

And the women problem doesn’t stop there. Rather shockingly, Yvette Cooper was the first woman to take maternity leave as a minister, in 2001.

“My first experience of taking maternity leave was when I was in the Department of Health and everyone worked really hard to make it work. The second time I took maternity leave everyone made it really hard, there were questions about whether I would go back to the same job and responsibilities. So I spoke to the other women cabinet ministers about it and said we need a framework in place. Part of the problem is it is such a rare occurrence. I think that in Parliament we need more women, Parliament ought to look like the rest of the country.”

This is a theme. Yvette doesn’t dwell for long on her personal experiences but when she does they quickly become campaigns-in-the-making. She suffered with chronic fatigue syndrome when she was 24, which forced her to stop work for a year. “It was a long slow haul and you feel at the time you are never going to get better, but many people do,”  but, then quickly, without taking a breath, “It’s an area where those people that do suffer with it long term there is much more research needed because it is a bit of a hidden illness.”

Nigel Morris, the political editor at the i, tells me that “Corbyn’s allies are frustrated that she isn’t on the front bench. They insist there would be a job for her if she wanted it.”

But she maintains there are other things to work on. As well as serving her constituents (she is the Member of Parliament for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford), she is also working on the next stage of support for refugees. She helped push through the Lord Alf Dubs amendment to help 3,000 of the estimated 26,000 lone child refugees without a family in Europe.

“I think when you say there are 11-year-olds in Calais, with nobody looking after them, people can’t quite believe its happening. Now we have got the amendment through the next stage is to work with local councils on supporting these children.”

Cooper is angry about the Leave campaign’s tactics. “It has a very Trump feel” she says

But we’re here to discuss her recent initiative to make the web safer, Reclaim the Internet, which launched last month to blanket coverage. There was strong support for it and also, ironically, a backlash from trolls. It’s a cross-party initiative covering everything from criminal abuse to organised trolling. Jess Phillips (Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley) and Maria Miller (Conservative MP for Basingstoke) are both involved. Phillips has written extensively about getting rape threats online.

“Jess’s point is that she will never be silenced but other people might,” says Cooper. “The important thing is if people in all walks of life are ending up not speaking up and falling silent then what you are doing is reducing freedom of speech.”

Cooper took her inspiration from the Reclaim the Night movement of the 1970s: “Women were being told, ‘If you want to stay safe you just shouldn’t go out at night’, when actually the streets should be safe for everybody. The internet is the new streets, where there are crimes being committed like racial abuse, rape threats, revenge porn. You need a stronger response from police and prosecutors, but also while it was the council’s responsibility to provide safe street lighting, it is the duty of social media platforms to deal with harassment and it is the responsibility on us as individuals to change attitudes as well.”

Since the launch, Cooper has heard from a vet who received hurtful personal comments from customers, a woman who said she didn’t feel she could take part in debates on the EU online for fear of a backlash, students discovering abusive messages on Yik Yak, a localised social media app for colleges, and teachers getting abuse from pupils. (You can contribute ideas and experiences here)

In July, Facebook, Twitter and Google will meet to discuss proposals. Various other organisations, like Wikipedia, Stonewall, teachers unions TUC and NASUWT and organisations like Women’s Aid, End Violence Against Women and GirlGuiding UK are also on board.

You get the impression that despite being very busy, Cooper is determined to create balance in her life. In 2010, she didn’t put herself forward for the Labour leadership, because she didn’t think it was the right time.  "I could be working for another 25 years,” she told a reporter, “and am only likely to be reading bedtime stories for another two or three years". This week, she is juggling GCSE revision with her eldest daughter while campaigning to remain in the EU. Corbyn has been less visible on that front than her, I observe.

“He has been very active around the country and today he is with Tom Watson, they are launching a poster, which is really good,” she says, without even the merest hint in her expression that she might be damning him with faint praise.

Cooper wants to remain in the EU for “jobs” but ideologically she feels membership allows us to “punch above our weight in the world”. She compares leaving the EU to walking out on your family if they annoy you.  “You don’t walk out on them and think you will be richer and stronger without them. It just makes you poorer and weaker.”

She’s also angry about the leave campaign’s tactics. “It has a very Trump feel” she says. “People like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson know there is no chance of Turkey joining the EU any time and yet they are still standing by these posters. It feels like so much is at stake for the whole country but they are campaigning on these big lies.”

She has the manner of a serious elder stateswoman, even though at 47 she still looks cherubic. Westminster gossip says that she might have another crack at the leadership next time, but she bats my question away.

“No, we’ve just had a leadership election, we did that last summer. What we need to do now is not be looking inwards at the Labour party but be looking outwards, at the country.”

And that’s exactly what she’s doing. 

@EmilyJupp

reclaimtheinternet.com

Yvette Cooper (Photo: Getty Images)
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