On 2 November, Claire McCarthy took over as the new secretary general of the Co-operative Party. Ms McCarthy has been the Party’s head of external and political affairs for the past two years, having previously worked as a special adviser, public affairs professional and charity leader.
Here, she discusses the Party’s agenda for the future as well as its relationship with the Labour Party and the wider co-operative movement.
“There are two main challenges,” says Claire McCarthy. “I really want to see the Party more intrinsically connected to the co-operative movement and more accountable by having more co-operative society members and co-operators as individual members – that will be a really important drive.
“And the second challenge for all of us, but also for the Co-op Party, is to play a full role in ensuring the co-op movement is able to do more to change Britain for the better.”
Claire McCarthy takes over from Karin Christiansen – the first woman to hold the post –who led the organisation since 2012. “I am fortunate to take on the Party from Karin who worked so hard and achieved so much,” she says. Ms McCarthy is now looking to build on her predecessor’s work.
The Party – and the movement – needs to reach out and make sure people understand what co-ops are about if they are to change Britain, she says, arguing that the unions have an important role to play.
“There are real shared values between trade unions and co-ops, both based on collective power for people,” she says. “The earliest trade unionists were co-operators. There is a shared agenda there and the Party can be part of ensuring these very important social movements work together.”
She adds: “In terms of practical things, we have had conversations with some particular trade unions. We have built relationships with the Communications Workers Union and are having conversations with them about how to increase the voice of the workforce within Royal Mail.
“There are important lessons to learn from supporter trusts and the work of Supporters Direct in how to bring a collective voice within a private company and we are working with them on that.”
The unions are also playing a part in the Party’s policy on rail and public services. Meanwhile, the Party is aligning with trade unions against the Trade Union Bill.
“The attack on trade unions is an attack on a collective spirit,” she says. “Stephen Doughty, Labour/ Co-op MP for Cardiff South and Penarth made a powerful speech on its second reading.”
The new secretary general also faces the task of growing the membership. “We have had more members joining, which is really exciting, and we want to build on that momentum,” she says. “One of the key things is bringing new vigour to our local campaigning activity.
We have recently launched two initiatives. The Co-operative Action Network is a new way of making sure local members and parties have the skills they need to drive change in communities. The first events will be taking place before Christmas. The Co-operative Councillors Network is about councillors doing more work to champion local models and their local co-operative movement.”
Ms McCarthy says the Party will continue to work with Labour.
“We have an on-going dialogue with the Labour leadership and shadow secretaries of state,” she says, “and we have Labour/Co-op representatives on the shadow cabinet ministerial team – six of them, an increase from previous years. That engagement is constant.”
While the economy remains a big focus for the Party, it will also look at new models of public ownership.
“There needs to be strong accountability. That informs our view on railways, and we have a strong view on other areas of public services too,” she says.
“We want to develop new models of public ownership and we will be pushing for those with Labour but we are also keen to get the government to listen to those ideas as well, as we did with the Armed Forces Credit Union. Lord Kennedy and Gareth Thomas MP managed to get the coalition government to implement that.”