Charlotte England, Rights Info Org, April 26, 2019
Too many of the people making key decisions in local politics are ageing white men called Dave or John and this is unlikely to change anytime soon, two new analyses have indicated ahead of council elections happening across England on 2 May.
Councillors are elected to represent their community and on this basis they must live or work in the area where they stand. But while they may represent their communities geographically, the current cohort do not represent them demographically according to two new surveys, one by the BBC and one by pressure group Operation Black Vote (OBV), which show that councils are too white, too male and too old.
Currently, 96% of councillors are white and two thirds are male according to the Local Government Association’s most recent census. In an analysis of the data, OBV found a significant ‘gap’ in black, Asian and minority ethnic representation, which is particularly acute with regards to African/ Caribbean communities.
Meanwhile, the BBC looked specifically at candidates in the 2 May election and found that there are almost 1,000 named either David or Dave standing next week in the 8,800 seats available, compared to just 151 with the most popular female name: Sue.
In addition to a lack of female councillors, there is also a persistent problem with most local politicians being older than the average person in the communities they are supposed to stand for. The average age of councillors is 59, according to the LGA census, with a far higher proportion over 60 than among the general population.
The findings have left councils under fire for being too slow to encourage women, young people and BAME candidates to stand, with some accused of being worse than others. According to OBV’s analysis, councils in Portsmouth and Brighton are among the least representative authorities across England for people from BAME backgrounds.
The group’s analysis of 123 single tier councils shows that 23% of councils – that’s nearly a quarter – have no elected representatives from BAME communities. One third of councils have one BAME councillor or less.
While there has been a small improvement in the proportion of white councillors since 2004 – it’s fallen from 96.5% to 95.8% according to the LGA – and in the number of women – up from 29% to 36% – both are still unrepresentative of the overall population.
Meanwhile there has been a total lack of progress on age, with the situation in fact getting worse: More than a quarter of councillors in England are now over 70 years old, compared to just 14% in 2004. Although the LGA did record the proportion under 40 rising from 7% in 2004 to just over 10% in 2018.
Why are most councillors old, white and male – and why does it matter?
Because being a councillor is not a full time role and is not salaried (although councillors are compensated for their time with an allowance that varies between authorities) it may attract more older people who are in stable positions with money and time to commit to long meetings with other councillors and constituents.
But being a councillor is an important role which includes a say over how budgets worth millions of pounds are allocated, as well as decisions on housing and service provision or service cuts.
It can also be a way to get into politics, with many MPs first becoming involved in local politics. A problem with representation at a local level may therefore perpetuate the problem at a national level where there are currently just 210 female MPs out of 650, and only 51 BAME MPs
Simon Woolley, the director of OBV said the figures show a failure to encourage BAME councillors, which can lead to “disharmony” and “mistrust” between communities.
“The findings appear to show that some local political leaders really don’t care about representative democracy. Leaving communities without a representative voice is a recipe for community breakdown and discord,” he said.
The findings appear to show that some local political leaders really don’t care about representative democracy. Leaving communities without a representative voice is a recipe for community breakdown and discord.
Woolley went on to tell BBC 5 Live there should be all-black shortlists in national politics to tackle the lack of diversity.
“Unless you have a voice, then things are done to you, not for you,” he said. “Communities turn away because they can’t see themselves, they can’t see policies that reflect their concerns and they say ‘why bother’.”
Andrew Bazeley from the Fawcett Society campaign group told the BBC he felt the pace of change was far too slow with regards to getting women on to councils, as well as in terms of ethnicity, age and disability.
He said councils needed to “change the way they do business”, putting in place maternity and childcare policies, better meeting hours, and systems to “stop harassment and sexism in the council chamber”.