Activist Kathryn sets sights on Westminster

Kathryn Smith has just topped the poll in the elections for the South London Area Committee of the Co-op Group. 

For over 25 years, Kathryn has played a key role in the Movement. Until recently she was a director of the Group, but has stood down due to family and political commitments as Labour/Co-op PPC for the marginal seat of Gravesham.

But Kathryn has much to be proud of in her 12 years on the main board, steering things forward and serving on committees dealing with everything from ethics to corporate governance and community investment.

She says: “I first got involved 25 years ago via the Royal Arsenal Society’s political committee; then when it merged with CWS, I was encouraged to stand for the CWS committee. As a director of the Group, I have served under three CEOs and in that time I hope I have gained a reputation as someone who prioritised goals and refused to be patronised because I am a woman.”

Kathryn recalls that when she first got involved, there was much to be done to revive the Co-op’s fortunes. “I was very keen to ensure management lived by Co-op values and principles and practised what it preached. Profit is important, but so is how we make those profits and how we deal with the community, our environment and our ethics.

“Back then, the Co-op Group had lost its way a bit and we were not making a virtue as we should have done of Co-op values and principles. I was the only lay member of the re-branding panel which was about turning round public understanding of what we were about.

“Thankfully now the components of our brand ensure Co-op values and principles are at the heart of what we do. The TV advert with the Bob Dylan song is shouting out to the world and a number of people have come up to me saying they are so pleased because we had allowed them to forget how important we are.”

Kathryn’s allegiance to the Co-op goes back to her childhood days. She remembers her mother “buying Christmas” thanks to the Divi stamps she had saved all year.

Brought up in south London, she now lives in north-west Kent with her partner Munir Malik — whom she met thanks to the Co-operative Party— and their daughter Aisha.

Now nine, Aisha has the honour of probably being the first baby to attend Co-operative Group meetings — when her mother was juggling her commitments, which she admits was not always easy.

“It’s been a tricky balancing act and it’s more difficult for women. Harriet Harman has come in for a lot of criticism recently, but I do agree with her that we need more women in the boardrooms. A more diverse boardroom leads to better decision-making, but it’s hard.

“By the end I was spending two or three days a week in Manchester with piles of paperwork like all my colleagues and I want to pay tribute to them for working so hard. They all share my passion for the Co-op.”

Despite standing down as a Group director, Kathryn remains a tireless advocate of co-operation. She will carry on as Chair of Co-operatives London, which is branching out beyond the consumer sector into areas like housing and credit unions. She will also continue to be non-executive director of Social Enterprise London.

Other tasks include being a member of the Co-operative Group’s Development Fund and Enterprise Hub — a recommendation of the 2001 Co-operative Commission. Kathryn was in there right at the start of New Labour, working for Philip Gould and helping Bill Clinton’s team in 1992 — when Labour, against the predictions, lost the general election.

As a Parliamentary candidate, she acknowledges she has a battle on her hands to win back the Gravesham seat for Labour. But with only months to go before the poll, she is treating this as a “full-time job” and is optimistic she can win — despite the gloomy overall electoral picture.

Kathryn joined the Labour Party in 1983 after Neil Kinnock became leader, worked for former Labour/Co-op MEP Richard Balfe and MP Kate Hoey in the 1980s and served as a councillor in the London Borough of Bexley from 1994 to 2006. She is a former leader of the Council and as Chair of Education and Leisure was in charge of a multi-million pound budget.

She said: “When I first became a councillor there was a Tory government, but one of the first things we did was to double our nursery programme and build four new nurseries a year. It was great to serve the local community and I was very disappointed to lose my seat in 2006.

“But the good news in Gravesham is that the current MP only has a majority of 654 majority so I’m still very upbeat and excited and delighted to be a Labour/Co-op candidate.

“Labour has to keep the faith. People are all too easily willing to forget 18 years of Tory rule and we’ve done so many good things like SureStart and the Building Schools for the Future programme. The trouble is we do all these wonderful things and we forget to tell people who take it all for granted and forget what a Labour Government has done.”

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