Speech to Co-op Party Northern Conference



Thank so much Kim for introduction.

And thank you, Conference.

The sun is shining and it’s great to be with you for what will be my final event as Mayor –

I’m proud that it will be in this forum here, with all of you today.

Before I start, I’d like to say a word about the appalling and needless violence in Ukraine…

I know we are all greatly inspired by the resolve, determination and spirit shown by the Ukrainian people.

And that we stand united against Putin’s illegal invasion and send our solidarity to Ukrainians both here and those resisting his barbaric regime.

Slava Ukraini.


Conference, I’m now in the twilight of my time as Mayor of South Yorkshire but my departure does not spell the end of co-operative values in our region.

Far from it… with your help, a new dawn will once again break!

Oliver Coppard – and I hope he’s tuned in, this plug is for him! –

is standing to become our next Labour and Co-op Mayor of South Yorkshire.

We’re less than 6 weeks away from polling day so please,

if you can help… knock, leaflet, call.

Oliver will make a fantastic Mayor – so let’s make it happen.


Conference, we are living through extraordinary times.

Events are happening at a scale and at a frequency few could have ever imagined.

As we emerge from the worst pandemic for a century…

our economy is weakened, our continent is at war, and our communities face hardship.

The world is changing before our eyes.

Technological advances and the climate emergency mean change will only accelerate, not slow.

The challenges we face today and those we face tomorrow are daunting but like the challenges of yesterday, they will be overcome.

The journey will be arduous, long and beset by difficulties but it is one we must make and make together.

I say this not out of naivety or to give false hope, but because I know what we can achieve as a collective.

Our history is filled with people who came together in the hope of making a better tomorrow.

Community power – Conference – is what the labour and co-operative movements are all about.


So let me tell you our story in South Yorkshire, the progress we have made, the challenges we still face and what we need to meet them.

George the Third once labelled Sheffield – and by association,

South Yorkshire – a “damned bad place” because of our radical tendencies.

Conference, I can’t speak for The Queen, but I hope that she has a more favourable view of our slice of God’s Own Country and what we are trying to accomplish, than her predecessor did!

That predisposition for risk has never abated… from our ambitious social housing projects of the 50s and 60s, through to our subsidised public transport network and the Miners’ Strike of the 80s,

South Yorkshire has always tried to do what is right by its people.

Our steadfastness – some may say stubbornness(!) – is one of our greatest strengths.

And when I ran for the mayoralty of our region, I wanted to draw on our history – our collective spirit – of working for the common good.

My manifesto was titled ‘A Co-operative Community’ – our blueprint for levelling-up… long before the phrase was conceived, I might add!

And unlike that slogan, it had substance.

The task – of transforming our region – was made even harder by the uncertainty caused by the Brexit transition and then by this wretched virus, but true to form South Yorkshire remained unbowed.


I am incredibly proud of all that we have achieved.

And I am incredibly proud it has all been done by harnessing the power of devolution and co-operation.


Conference, there are few better examples of Tory failure than

public transport: deregulated, fragmented, extortionate.


They say we get choice and efficiency through privatisation,

but the reality is that fares are up, and services are down.

Same as it always was with the Tories… Pay more. Get less.

That’s why we’ve invested so much time, energy and cash in our buses.


And I’m proud to say that earlier this month we formally took the decision to get the ball rolling to franchise our bus services.

Our communities deserve a world class bus network, there’s a long way to go but this is the start of something that could revolutionise access to work, education, culture, nature and opportunity.

And it isn’t just South Yorkshire…

Andy Burnham in Manchester.

My friend and neighbour, Tracy Brabin in West Yorkshire.

And Steve Rotherham in Liverpool.

Labour Mayors – across the North – bringing public transport back under public control: where… it… belongs – so it’s accessible, affordable, sustainable.

That’s what you get with Labour in power.


Conference, South Yorkshire was the cradle of the first industrial revolution.

And as we move toward another, we have sought to recapture that spirit and make our region a high-tech industrial hub providing well-paid, meaningful, productive jobs.

We now have the world’s largest production line of hydrogen electrolysers used to power cars, buses and trains.

At the end of last year, I opened an amazing factory in Rotherham doing brilliant things with electric drivetrains – converting diesel into net zero vehicles.

This month I announced the creation of the new

South Yorkshire Sustainability Centre – a collaboration between the mayoral office, the University of Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam University, our Local Authorities and a host of private and voluntary organisations.

The Centre will be a hub to identify problems and find solutions for our transition to a greener South Yorkshire – and to seize the opportunities that come with it.

Our steel and coal workers once powered our nation, our people can do the same again.


We’ve also leveraged our devolved revenue to create a Renewal Fund worth up to half a billion pounds.

Part of that money will go to help tackle big strategic challenges like decarbonisation and transport.

And part will go to investing in enterprises with the potential to create jobs, boost productivity and incomes.


Conference, you’ll be pleased to know co-operation runs through everything we do. Our movement has deep roots here in the North.

The prototype for the modern co-op – as we all know – was created when the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers opened a small shop.

28 people, 5 items was just the beginning.

Their struggle, their principles, their compassion led us to where we are now: 7,000 independent co-ops, a quarter of a million jobs.

What lessons can we draw from the Pioneers?

Well, first, that Greater Manchester’s proclivity for the limelight was apparent long before Andy Burnham took the reins!

Second, the belief that drove them endures.

A humble but radical belief: that they – not government, not business, not individuals – they were best placed to serve their community in a way others had failed.

Conference – as Mayor – I have always tried to work with that philosophy in mind.

Modern Britain is of course an entirely different place from the Victorian era in which the Pioneers emerged but regrettably many parallels can be drawn:

Pay… low.

Work… insecure.

Conditions… worsening.

And we too are on the cusp of great change.

Earlier this month I was privileged to spend time with the

Sheffield Maternity Co-op – the first of its kind… an inspiring organisation, founded by a group of midwives to support groups often excluded from mainstream maternity care.

No barriers… just help and compassion.

Co-founder and worker member – Julia – was heavily pregnant when we met. I’m delighted to say she recently gave birth to a healthy baby boy, and I’d like to send my very best wishes at this special time.

Conference, I want to see more success stories like the

Sheffield Maternity Co-op, that’s why we’ve written another chapter in our rich history – this time on the right side of the Pennines! – with the creation of the South Yorkshire Ownership Hub.

The Hub is a joint venture with Co-operatives UK and the

Employee Ownership Association – the very first of its kind, designed to support the creation and growth of co-operatives and worker ownership.

We all know the huge social and economic benefits a co-operative economy brings but the fact is, the UK is lagging by international comparisons.

Our Ownership Hub will help implement business strategy, improve organisational development and assist with raising capital.

I’m absolutely delighted to say that we will be working in partnership with the think-tank Ownership at Work and specialist impact investor Valloop, to support their plans for £100m of finance to bring more company ownership into the hands of ordinary workers.

It’s called Time to Share, and it’s going to be the start of something big.

And I know Labour Mayors across the North are using co-operation to improve their regions, Jamie Driscoll for example, is establishing a fantastic supply teacher co-op in conjunction with trade unions in the North of Tyne.

Conference, we need a government willing to put its faith in people and entrust them with the tools they need to forge a better tomorrow for their communities.

I have no faith that this government will do what is required which is why we acted.

Our Ownership Hub means this generation’s Pioneers can build something – and like the Rochdale Society, from the ground up.


Conference, while I am hugely proud of all we have achieved over the past 4 years, there is of course shade to the light.

Regional inequality means you will die younger and earn less because of where you grew up.

The UK has the worst levels of any comparable advanced economy. It is a stain on our country and a blight on our communities.

Which brings us to the government’s antidote: levelling-up – a slogan worthy of investigation by Trading Standards.

I say that only half-jokingly because they have defrauded the North.

They’ve robbed us of a tenner, given us back a quid and then have the gall to wonder why we’re angry.

That’s the story of levelling up.

But the day-to-day reality of the policy is more complex.

In the last four years, my team has submitted endless bids for pots of cash to Whitehall department after department:

Levelling Up Fund.

Community Renewal Fund.

City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement.

Transforming Cities Fund.

Get Britain Building Fund.

The list goes on and on and on.

Each with their own reporting mechanisms and rules, choking creativity, limiting ambition and ultimately failing to deliver.

We can’t know how we’ll fare, so we can’t plan.

If we lose, it’s a case of tough luck, get an application going for the next round.

And if we do win, the money simply isn’t enough for anything of scale.

It doesn’t work.

Of course, we need transparency and accountability but that can be achieved without interminable bureaucracy.

And it’s not just wasteful, it politicised, cash ends up in places according to what suits the government and what’ll improve the Tories’ chances at the next election.

It’s rotten.

Last month the government published its much-anticipated Levelling Up White Paper.

There are some welcome measures in the plan – no one in our movement can credibly rail against raising life expectancy or eradicating illiteracy.

But after 12 years of unpicking the social fabric of our communities we’re left with 12 rehashed – albeit laudable – targets and no detail on how they’re going to be funded.

Conference, living standards are plummeting at a rate not seen since rationing.

I have constituents in Barnsley genuinely scared for what the coming months will bring.

The cost of food, fuel, energy, travel all spiralling.

Rather than being levelled-up, we’re facing the real prospect of being levelled-down even further.

And what’s the government’s grand plan…

Halt the National Insurance rise? No.

Restore the £20 a week Universal Credit uplift taken away from 6 million families? No.

Implement a one-off windfall tax on oil and gas producers to cut household bills? No.

The grand plan, Conference, is to offer some half-baked ‘buy now, pay later’ energy scheme and press ahead with tax rises, all so the Chancellor can claim credit for cutting them before the next election.

The Spring Statement on Wednesday was an opportunity to ease the pain for those suffering the most. Instead, the government choose to do nothing for the most vulnerable in our society.

We should call it what it is: callous.


Conference, there is an alternative.

Labour Mayors and Councillors across the North are making a difference to the lives of workers and families every single day.

After you’ve heard my ramblings, you’ll hear from co-operators doing

the most amazing work in their communities.

Imagine the change we could bring about if we were in government.

And that, Conference, is our ultimate goal – to apply the labour and co-operative values we’re championing today, across our great nation.



We have done it before. We can do it again.

45, 64, 97…

3 historic victories.

1 defining message: with Labour we can share a better tomorrow.

I know I speak for all of us when I say we are done with opposition,

done with sitting on the side-lines,

done with watching the manged decline of our communities.

I said earlier that the world is changing before our eyes.

Our responsibility is to ensure that the change we are about to experience is the good kind,

the kind that means prosperity is shared equitably between every nation, city, town, village and home.

Remember… the challenges before us maybe new,

but the principles on which our success rests are timeless.

Conference, I know that together, we WILL prevail.

Thank you.

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