Meet… Alex Sobel, Labour/Co-op MP for Leeds North West

What does a day in the life of a Labour/Co-op MP look like?

Alex was elected Labour/Co-op MP for Leeds North West in June after defeating Lib Dem incumbent Greg Mulholland. His General Election triumph follows five years with Leeds City Council as councillor for Moortown ward. He now divides his time between Westminster and the family home in Leeds which he shares with wife Susan and sons Jakob, 9, and Zac, 6, who are both keen members of the Woodcraft Folk.

What inspired you to become a Labour/Co-op MP?

I have a long history with the co-op movement. I worked in community development and social enterprise for 15 years covering the whole of Yorkshire and the Humber and parts of the North of England and Midlands. So the political values of co-operators and the principles which began the movement chime with my politics. I like the idea that we can have a different model of the economy that is not market-driven capitalism or command and control run by the state. A business model where workers, consumers and the community own what they do is something I want to promote and make mainstream. My fellow Labour/Co-op MPs have been very kind and supportive and I have been to several meetings around co-op housing, which I was involved with before Parliament as a councillor. It’s good to be able to discuss co-op issues together.

What does a typical day entail?

If Parliament is sitting every day we have ministerial statements and debate about forthcoming Bills so a few days in advance you decide if you want to speak or put a question to the minister, and if you have done that you will take part in the session in the chamber. That starts around 11am so before then I would go into my office, check my e-mails, the usual stuff most people do. I might have one or two meetings before I go in the chamber or would have other meetings in the afternoon. I am a member of the environmental audit committee and there are loads of all-party parliamentary groups which MPs take part in. There’s not a typical day as such but I might have visits from constituents or a Co-op Party meeting or get to meet with a charity. Normally I will travel down to London Monday morning and come home Thursday night. When I am in London I don’t notice the time. It’s rare that I leave work before 10pm and I am so busy that I can easily forget to eat. At the moment I am staying in temporary accommodation and working through what I will do longer term. When I am at home in Leeds I don’t work in the evening, although I might attend events in the constituency.

Related: Meet … Nathan Bower-Bir, researcher and housing co-op founder

What’s the best thing about the job?

The fact that you can raise people’s issues at a very high level and see it through. If you are a local councillor you will get someone with an issue which you can try to solve but you can’t change the law. As MPs we have an opportunity to try to do that.

And the hardest?

On day one as an MP you turn up and people expect a continuation of service from their previous MP but you have no staff, no constituency office and no computers to start with. It’s been about how to manage people’s expectations without those things in place because it takes time. Some people make the assumption when you are elected that your family will move to London but in my case it’s not viable because the kids are at school in Leeds and that’s our home. So it’s hard being apart although I come home Thursday night and am there till Monday.  My dad worked away a lot so it’s a situation I grew up with. I only had eight weeks as a new MP and then there was recess and summer holidays which was good because it gave me the chance to have a period of adjustment.

How do you see your relationship with the co-op movement?

It’s really a seamless transition from my previous working life. As Labour/Co-op MPs we are representatives of the movement in all its guises from food and agricultural co-ops to the Woodcraft Folk. My relationship is to highlight issues, understand them  and help the movement to expand. If we move into government, we can move legislation forward and increase the support the co-op movement gets. At the moment the co-op ideal is very much part of Labour’s economic debate and discussions around industry, education and the role co-operatives can play. It’s also great that the Labour/Co-op group of 38 MPs is the second largest ever and that, in Jeremy Corbyn, we have a leader who has been supportive of the movement all his political life.

What achievement are you proudest of?

I have only just become an MP, so reflecting on things before that I helped set up the UK’s first ever climate change committee in Leeds in my role as lead member for climate change. It’s an issue which is very important to me and was part of my maiden speech. We set things up in Leeds in early 2016 following the Paris Agreement and I am hoping other local authorities will come on board so we can meet our obligations in protecting the environment and making a real difference.

What difference does the Co-op Party make to Labour policy?

Quite a lot. The Co-op Party has its own policy-making process and seeks to get the ideas from its manifesto into the Labour manifesto. We are quite successful at doing that. It’s also an opportunity to try to influence things between elections. I recently met with one of John McDonnell’s Treasury team around Labour’s commitment to community-owned water ownership and we are hopefully setting up a meeting with Welsh Water to look at their mutual model. It’s our responsibility to make those kind of things happen and build practical ideas so that a Labour government can implement them. Via  local authorities we have set up co-op councils and that has had significant successes in promoting the idea of co-ops to people in the community, changing hearts and minds. There’s also a broader thing around priorities for councils and having a dialogue between councils and MPs so we can free councils to act more co-operatively.

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