As I begin my role as the Co-operative Party’s new Equalities Officer, I wanted to start by reflecting on the Co-operative Party and the wider co-operative movement’s heritage in championing equalities. After all, the movement’s foundations in Toad Lane saw women become equal voting members of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers – long before women won the right to vote nationally. Co-operative values including equality, and our co-operative principle of voluntary and open membership, means a willingness to accept all persons without discrimination is hardwired into how all co-operatives operate.

Co-operative MPs have long taken these values and principles with them to Westminster. It was Co-operative MP Alf Morris in the 1970s who passed the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act – the first of its kind in the world which recognised and gave rights to people with disabilities. In the last Labour administration, Co-operative MPs and Peers were part of the administration which scrapped the homophobic Section 28, created civil partnerships and introduced the Equality Act.

However, politics still suffers from a lack of representation – the gender gap prevails at every level of government, and there persists a severe lack of ethnic diversity in both politics and public life. Many barriers still exist for people with disabilities to seek election. The average age of MPs at elections has consistently been around 50, with very few opportunities for young people to have their voice heard. And while it’s hugely encouraging that the UK’s parliament is the “gayest in the world” according to Pink News, those overwhelmingly white, male MPs do not reflect the diversity of the UK LGBTQ+ community.

And the events of last year have emphasised just how unequal and unjust our wider society and economy are too, and highlight the work we all need to do to change it. That’s why the Co-operative Party is committed to building a fairer future where power and wealth are share. A future where everyone has a voice and stake in their community.

We’ve come a long way. After the Co-operative Party National Executive Committee elections in 2011, only one of the eleven regional seats was held by a woman.  So, the Co-operative Party National Executive Committee took the decision to reserve a number of the regional seats for women and since then the Party has had an NEC with gender balance. And in our Chair and Vice-Chair Jim McMahon and Ruth Hall, we have a gender balanced NEC officer team too, as we have done for many years. We’ve had three female party chairs – most recently the late Chris Herries, two female General Secretaries, and a gender balanced or all-women SMT for well over a decade. This year, we were also proud to welcome Preet Kaur Gill MP as the first BAME woman to Chair our Westminster Parliamentary group, with two of or three Parliamentary Groups now led by women.

Beyond gender, we’ve also recognised the need to ensure reserved representation in other areas too. While our NEC has trended younger and more diverse over recent years, we’re committed to ensuring these voices are always heard. We have NEC representation for our Youth members and BAME Network – and into the future we will be looking to make sure all networks are represented. Our BAME, (dis)Ability, LGBTQ+, Women, and Youth Networks are in place to support, train and develop a new generation of activists to play an active role in politics and I am working closely with their recently elected committees. And this year we will have our first Equalities Advisory Committee which will help to shape our Party’s work.

We are working to ensure everything we do is inclusive and accessible – before Covid-19 forced us to move online for our annual conference, a group of members with disabilities joined colleagues to visit potential venues to ensure we had an accessible venue for everyone, and since moving online we have started working with the RNIB to closed caption our Zoom events.

But we still have a lot to do. We can always strive to do more, and I am excited to help lead the next chapter in our journey. My role is to help make sure our movement is a safe and welcoming space and that our policies, campaigns, members, and elected representatives reflect the diversity of the UK.

From supporting diverse candidates to stand in this year’s local elections, to training and mentoring schemes, ensuring our events and digital services are fully accessible, campaigning on equalities issues, and more, I am looking forward to working with all of you to help create a fairer and more equal society.