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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Chi Onwurah

Steve Cohen obituary

Steve Cohen helped to found the Socialist Environment and Resources Association
Steve Cohen helped to found the Socialist Environment and Resources Association Photograph: from family/Unknown

My friend Steve Cohen, who has died aged 70 of cancer, was one of Newcastle upon Tyne’s most respected and influential Labour party activists, as well as being a pioneer of socialist environmental concern.

He began his involvement with the party in 1970, after moving to Newcastle from his native Manchester to begin training as an optician. He soon became secretary of the Newcastle upon Tyne North constituency party and held various posts over the years.

Even from his early involvement with the party he believed that socialism and enviromentalism went together, and in 1973 the New Scientist magazine’s account of the Labour conference reported that: “Steve Cohen, a young delegate from Newcastle North, demanded fiscal incentives for recycling.” He helped to found the Socialist Environment and Resources Association at the same conference.

I first met Steve when I stood to be the Labour parliamentary candidate for the Newcastle Central constituency in 2009. I did not have high hopes of being selected, but Steve made sure it was a truly open and inclusive process – and I won. As constituency secretary he dedicated many hours of his life to the party, and his intimate knowledge of elections and Labour politics going back five decades meant that no situation fazed him. He was warm and generous, private and open, humane and sardonic.

Steve was born in Manchester, the third of four sons of Manc Cohen, a pharmacist and optician, and his wife, Betty (nee Seidman), also a pharmacist. After attending Ducie Technical high school for boys in the city he studied to be an optician on a three-year full-time BSc course at Bradford University (1967-70), then moved straight to Newcastle to work for the Co-Op Eye Care group, continuing to work with the company after 2001, when it was sold to Optical Express. He retired in 2017.

Apart from his constituency work, Steve was for some time a Labour councillor on Tyne and Wear county council. Until his death he continued to work largely behind the scenes for the party in Newcastle, including at the last general election. I will particularly miss his advice, often delivered with dry humour.

Steve suffered greatly from psoriasis but never complained: “Pain is a social construct,” he said. But he did engage with new treatments such as immunotherapy, both to help himself and to push forward medical knowledge.

He was a kind, generous, hard- working man who, although always busy, was able to make time for friends and for anyone who needed his advice. He liked nothing more than to have a meal with Labour colleagues after a party meeting, and also enjoyed walking as part of the Newcastle Red Rambles group. As someone who had a great rapport with children, he was deeply committed to his nieces and nephews.

He is survived by a brother, Philip, three nieces and nephews, and four great nieces and nephews.

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