His father was Andrew Cunningham, leader of the Labour Party in the Northern Region in the 1970s, who was disgraced in the 1974 Poulson scandal. Dr Cunningham was first elected as member for Whitehaven in 1970; and the renamed Copeland constituency, which was the same constituency as Whitehaven, in 1983.
He was educated at Jarrow Grammar School (now Jarrow School) in the same class as Doug McAvoy, future general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. Cunningham then studied at Bede College of Durham University, receiving a BSc in Chemistry in 1962, and a PhD in 1967. He stayed at the university to become a research fellow from 1966-8, whilst working as an officer for the General and Municipal Workers' Union.
He was a district councillor for Chester-le-Street Rural & Parish Council, prior to becoming an MP and continued to live in the Garden Farm area of the town, bringing up his family there.
Cunningham joined the Shadow Cabinet in 1983, and was appointed to be a Deputy Lieutenant of the County of Cumbria in 1991. He ran the Labour Party's General Election campaign in 1992. He also appeared on many television Election programmes as one of the main spokesmen of the Party.
After the 1997 general election, he became Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and embarked on a modernisation programme for the Ministry. He worked to secure the lifting of the European Union ban on the export of UK beef, and achieved some limited success on this. He also paved the way for the creation of the disputably independent Food Standards Agency.
He was moved in 1998 to Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The media dubbed him cabinet enforcer, claiming that his role was effectively to sell the Government and its policies to the public and the media. Although there was some truth in this, he also led the government's work on modernising government, and chaired the Ministerial Committee on genetically modified foods and crops.
He retired from the Cabinet in 1999, and returned to the backbenches. He stood down from parliament at the 2005 general election. Having represented the parliamentary constituency that includes Sellafield, the UK's largest nuclear facility, for 35 years, he is a strong proponent of nuclear power and is the founding European legislative chairman of the Transatlantic Nuclear Energy Forum.
In the 2005 Dissolution Honours, he was raised to the peerage as Baron Cunningham of Felling, of Felling in the County of Tyne and Wear.
Lord Cunningham of Felling is still active in politics and chairs an all-party parliamentary committee to review the powers of the House of Lords.
Cunningham was suspended from the Labour Party whip, and the party, in June 2013 pending an investigation over claims he had offered to work for lobbyists. He was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing by the parliamentary standards authorities, and had the Labour whip restored.
He lives with his wife near Stocksfield, in Northumberland and is an avid fly fisherman.