As Secretary of the Sunderland branch of the Co-operative Party, a Labour & Co-operative councillor and Cabinet member on the City Council, I have a unique perspective locally on how the Party has grown in strength and influence. Though I have been a councillor since 1990, it was not until 2010 that I was elected as Sunderland’s first official Labour & Co-operative councillor and since then our numbers have grown. At first, Iain Kay and I (elected on the same night) back in 2010 were perceived as an oddity within the Labour Group – co-operators now comprise over 1/3 of the Labour Group!

I think if there is anything I have learned over the past 12 years is if you are thinking of becoming a candidate – don’t be afraid to think big – what is your goal if elected as a Labour and Co-operative councillor to make a difference? It might be to strengthen community ties, or take control of a public assets for community use, could be providing affordable food or the right to a decent housing. Have that vision or goal but be prepared to take lots of baby steps to achieving it – but never let go.

Our first step was in 2012, as a group of five Co-op councillors in the Labour Group, we persuaded the leadership to be a founding member of the CCIN network. By 2014, as a Co-op group of ten including our two first members of Cabinet, we persuaded the leadership to revise the Council constitution and to support a motion to Council to adopt the co-operative movement’s values and principles and declare ourselves a Co-operative Council. We were also successful in persuading the Labour Group to have the council pay the Real Living Wage to its workforce. In 2015, we experienced our first setback. The Branch put forward a proposal to Cabinet to develop a co-ordinated Community Wealth Programme – at the time we called it our developing resilient communities programme. This was rejected as too costly and unworkable. By 2018, our increasing numbers in the Labour Group began to make a difference in the direction of travel as far as our ideas were concerned: we are not there just to provide service to residents or for residents but with residents. The majority of Cabinet were fellow co-operators and we drew up our first truly co-operative manifesto and a commitment to an integrated Community Wealth Building strategy and action plan.

Since 2018 we’ve seen a step change in the council’s implementation of Co-op values and principles including:

  • incorporating the Modern Slavery Charter and TUC Good Jobs Agenda into our council procurement policy.
  • our ongoing financial support for a local social enterprise and co-operative incubator hub
  • dedicated officer support to develop and strengthen local community groups
  • local decision making in developing our neighbourhood plans
  • our decision to ban pesticides and introduce rewilding as part of our biodiversity strategy.
  • The Elemore project, regenerating an abandoned golf course with local co-operatives and social enterprises working together.
  • Becoming a Fair Tax authority
  • Through our Community Wealth Building programme ensuring more of the Sunderland wealth stays in Sunderland.
  • Progressing the Real Living Wage within Sunderland.

As you can see, progress has not always been easy, quick or smooth – even where Labour does run the council. But it’s been worth it. If you are thinking of standing as Labour and Co-operative in May, my advice is:

  • Think big – have that vision – but look to small baby steps in achieving it
  • Take your local branch on that journey and they will be there for you when support is needed
  • Learn from our experience. Nothing is unaffordable, it’s just not a priority within the council at that time in point. So when you’re told it’s not affordable, make it a political a priority.
  • There are many Co-operative candidates and Councillors out there now to support you. You are not alone.