Tulip Siddiq argues that increasing the number of female councillors should be a priority for a number of reasons, from justice, through to the positive effects it will have on policy and the outcome it will have in Westminster.
The 2010 National Census of Local Authority Councillors, published this week by the Local Government Association, shows static growth in the numbers of women local councillors in the UK. It reports that women make up 30.6 per cent of all councillors in England despite numbering 51.2 per cent of the population overall, and in fact is a slight drop on the 30.8 per cent seen in the 2008 census.
Despite hundreds of separate local elections taking place in the time since the last census of this type, and therefore hundreds of opportunities for the pool of individuals who become councillors to become more diverse, the numbers of women have remained more or less the same.
The low number of women MPs at Westminster is cause for regular discussion in the media, amongst academics and within political parties themselves. This issue has also been highlighted by both domestic and international organisations.
Conversely, there is considerably less of a spotlight on the number of women in local councils. The stagnant figures shown above suggest that a renewed focus on the role of women councillors is both necessary and timely.
The relationship between women and local government is undeniably a close one.
Women interact on a daily basis with the services provided by local authorities in terms of childcare, education and adult care services. Research has shown that women make over three-quarters of all phone calls to council offices, yet despite this near-constant engagement, women are underrepresented on local councils.
It is worth acknowledging that the percentage of women councillors is significantly a higher percentage than that of women MPs at Westminster (currently at 21.5 per cent), but is still short of the 50 per cent mark of parity. The argument for women to make up half of all councillors in the UK needs to be made forcefully if this situation is to change.
The key argument in favour of parity, and possibly the strongest, is justice. Quite simply, it is not fair that women are so underrepresented in local government. This argument posits that there should be no conditionality on the equal presence of men and women on councils as it is simply a question of justice.
However, it is also possible to argue that women councillors can make a difference for the women they represent, and could introduce a feminized view to local governance more broadly, something that has the potential to aid all constituents.
That is not to say that women should have to help women in order to ‘earn’ their place on the council, but that the presence of higher numbers of women in local politics will make this feminization process more likely to occur.
Speaking from my own experience, after taking on the culture portfolio in Camden council, I was forced to make an enormous cut to the sports budget because of the lack of government funding. However, my priority from the outset was to ensure that girls’ sport was not disproportionately affected by the financial situation.
It is an oversight that could have occurred easily and without any malicious intent, as more boys play sport than girls in the borough. From my own experience as a girl growing up in a country where very few sporting facilities were available for young girls, I was keen to maximise the opportunities available.
This is not to say that a male cabinet member for culture would have lacked this vision, it is just that it might not have been the top priority for him.
Finally, the role of local government as a political springboard for political careers should not be underestimated. Therefore, the number of women councillors overall should be considered in this context.
Over 40 per cent of newly-elected MPs at the 2010 General Election had been councillors, but nearly three quarters of these MPs were men, suggesting a springboard effect from local to national politics that is biased in favour of men, something also seen in data from the comparably-large 1997 intake.
If women are not able to use this pathway to Parliament in the same way as their male colleagues, it makes it even less likely that the number of women in the House of Commons will increase significantly without the use of quotas.
So, what can be done to increase the number of elected women in local politics and, in turn, the House of Commons?
Crucially, political parties must work harder to encourage women to stand for their local councils – existing research suggests that women are less likely to decide to stand in local elections on their own than men, acting only when asked by a political party. Political parties, and the networks within them, need to acknowledge this by making women feel valued as members of their organisation and political community.
A mix of practical barriers, such as childcare facilities and work-life balance, combined with negative perceptions of local political life as patriarchal, need to be combated in order to remove as many obstacles as possible and create a meaningful and practical equality of opportunity.
Political parties need to ensure that women are recruited to stand in local elections, are given the best opportunities to be elected, and work to increase retention levels once they are councillors. (Women have consistently been found to be more likely than men to stand down following only one term of service).
Addressing issues such as the time poverty of councillors, a political culture perceived as patriarchal and updating local governmental practice to best support councillors in their work will ensure that a more diverse range of women (and men) will consider becoming, and staying, local councillors.
This is something that will be of benefit to all involved in political life, the institutions in which they work, and the people who they are elected to serve.
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• The lack of women in Westminster has gone on for too long – Nan Sloane, October 25th 2011
• Two weeks after ‘fixing’ it, Cameron creates a new “women problem” – Alex Hern, October 17th 2011
• Clegg talks the talk on equality – but seat cull will make things worse – Shamik Das, September 19th 2011
• Where are all the women? – Ronit Wolfson, May 24th 2011
• Cameron, Clarke, Dorries, Willetts… The Tories keep screwing up on gender equality – Daniel Elton, May 22nd 2011