Claire McCarthy looks back on her time at the helm of the Co-op Party

‘I’ve been inspired by some of the exciting innovations taking place at local government level … it shows that, actually, we can face up to these huge challenges’

After almost four years as general secretary of the Co-op Party, Claire McCarthy left the organisation in July. She joined the Party in 2013 as head of external and political affairs before being appointed to the top role in October 2015. Here, she tells Co-op News why she has chosen to move to a local government team – and gives her view on what the future might bring for the Party…

What comes next for you?

You look at national politics and the nation seems very divided – politics in Westminster seems to be almost in gridlock but at local level there is a lot going on. At this level of government, you can make a big difference – so I have been inspired to go and take up a role in a local authority.

I’ve been inspired by some of the exciting innovations taking place at local government level. We talk about the Preston model and the work being done there to drive forward community wealth building. The model has now spread far beyond Preston and there are local authorities all over the country using it. Some of the work on modern slavery has been really successful at this level, too, as have projects such as the Greater Manchester Co-operative commission launched by Andy Burnham. It shows that, actually, we can face up to these huge challenges.

Would you welcome more devolution?

Absolutely. The Co-op Party has always been an advocate of what we call subsidiarity – we believe that power should be at the lowest possible level.
We are very supportive of devolution in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. People have different views on metro mayors but, in general terms, we think that power should be much less centralised in Westminster and Whitehall than it is.

When we think about Brexit, and some of the drivers behind it, some people who voted leave felt that Brussels was very remote from their everyday life; but actually, for lots of communities, Westminster and Whitehall feel very remote as well. We know that people have a sense of powerlessness about lots of things that go on in their lives – powerlessness in their communities, in their workplace, in the face of globalisation and huge multinational companies that don’t pay taxes – and they feel that these are not accountable to anyone.

In part, we can challenge all of those issues through more devolution of all different kinds from Whitehall and Westminster, all the way down to communities and groups of individuals.

What would you say have been the Party’s main achievements under your leadership?

I think we have had three good years. We have grown in size, we’ve got more individual members than ever before, and we have grown our visibility. More people know about the Co-op Party and more people are engaging with us. I think we’ve grown our influence.

We secured a commitment from the Labour Party in the 2017 general election manifesto that a future Labour government would work to double the size of the co-op economy. It’s the most ambitious commitment the Labour Party has ever given to the co-op movement. The centenary year has been
a fantastic celebration of the Party.

All this is at a time when some movement organisations that are about the same age have been lost. We lost Naco as an independent trade union for co-operators, and the women’s guild and national guild closed down as well. And yet the Co-op Party, in its 100th year, was able to say actually, we’re stronger than we’ve ever been. We got a real sense of purpose, of momentum and ambition.

I think if you are the leader of an organisation as old as the Co-op Party, your job is to steward this organisation, to leave it stronger than you found it.
I hope that people feel I’ve done that.

Clearly, it wasn’t just me. The staff team is amazing, they’ve done a brilliant job and they work so hard. We’re a small organisation with around 13 people but it is one that punches above its weight. And also there is the NEC, our members, our volunteer officers – so many people are contributing to the Party.

What are the main challenges for the Party?

The nation is divided and Brexit is taking up a lot of people’s time and attention. When we’re so uncertain about so many of the fundamentals about our economy and society, it’s hard for an organisation to plan and to drive its work forward. But that also presents a lot of opportunities as well.

As Ed Mayo and some others said at Co-operatives UK’s AGM, we’ve got to re-double our efforts because the need for our co-operative values has never been more urgent. People who are internationalist, who believe in an inclusive nation and an inclusive economy, who believe in solidarity and tolerance, we’ve got to fight for those values, maybe more than we’ve ever had to before because we see the rise of the far right and populism, not just in Britain, but in Europe and around the world.

But while there are challenges ahead, there are also massive opportunities and a real need for co-operative values. That’s going to mean the Party working with other movement organisations to put our best foot forward.

You’re only the second woman to lead the Party. Has this opened the door for others?

I hope so. We are seeing some positive trends around women’s representation in the co-op movement. In terms of some retail society boards, there has been some really good progress. The appointment of Debbie Robinson means Central England Co-op has a female CEO alongside Ursula Lidbetter at Lincolnshire. But there is still more to do in the Party and in the wider movement. When I look around co-op movement events, including Co-op Party ones, they are not as representative as they should be, both in terms of gender and other ways like age and ethnic background. We’re not necessarily representative of society in the way we should be and that’s something the Party is committed to doing more about. We’ve re-launched our women’s network. We’ve got our first BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic people) conference coming up and we are doing more work with LGBT co-operators as well. But it is a challenge.

What is your favourite memory of the Party?

There are a lot. The centenary conference was really exciting. We held our AGM in the Methodist Hall, where the Party had been created 100 years earlier. After our AGM we marched our centenary banner, which we had specially commissioned, into Parliament Square and held a rally.

I think that whole afternoon was quite special. It was celebrating the past while thinking about the future. It was the Party’s biggest conference in a number of years, with more than 500 delegates.

There have been many other special events, which means you meet so many people in the co-op movement. In many ways, it’s like a family – when you go to things like Co-op Congress, you get to meet and know so many special people. It’s these relationships that I’ll miss the most.