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Political Parties Have A Responsibility On Gender Representation

23/08/2017 16:51
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If you find yourself in a conversation about "the 2017 election", there's a strong likelihood you'll be about to dissect the results of June's general election, debating the merits of May versus Corbyn as PM, and not gearing up for a discussion on the finer points of those elections which took place just a month before, in the realm of Westminster's less sexy cousin; local government.

Councils are often viewed as Parliament's poor relation, not a place where real power lies. This ignores the fact that many of the decisions which affect our day-to-day lives are made by our local councils - where our houses are built, how our health and social care is delivered, and how our public spaces are maintained. And yet, new research by IPPR finds that these local decisions are frequently being taken by male-dominated and male-led councils, given disproportionate under-representation of women in local politics.

Only a third of councillors in England, and only 17% of council leaders, are women. These patterns vary across the country and while some councils perform better than others on gender balance, it's very hard not to see local government as anything other than an institution with a serious diversity problem. This would not be the first time that the words 'pale, male and stale' have been used.

Local government has been enjoying more attention from Westminster in recent years as a series of devolution deals have seen more powers being transferred downwards. Women, however, have not been given starring roles. In the six elections for new combined authority mayors in May there were a total of 39 candidates standing, of which just 7 were women - none of these women were successful in their election bids. With the member-councils of the combined authorities typically being represented by their council leaders, the boards of these new combined authorities are also heavily weighted in favour of men, and their agendas reflect this, overwhelmingly prioritising economic infrastructure above social infrastructure.

If we are to improve this picture, we need to tackle the pipeline into local government. To reach a 50:50 gender balance in local councillors across the country, we will need to inspire and support the election of over 3,000 new women councillors, while also ensuring local government is an environment in which our current women councillors want to stand for re-election. The challenge is by no means insurmountable but requires a step-change in approach.

Political parties need to step up and become central players. The vast majority of councillors are party members; parties are, in effect, the gatekeepers for elected office. They foster the networks in which information can be shared and guidance offered, while they can also provide the resources, expertise and profile required to run an election campaign and navigate the political world.

In national politics, we have seen a new generation of young women coming forward as ready and willing to participate in politics - voter turnout among women aged 18-24 was 53% at the 2017 general election compared to just 44% in 2015. Parties must seize upon this energy and make improved efforts to appeal to these voters, not only to sustain their political interest for future elections but to encourage their party membership - crucial for representation, being for many an important stage in becoming a local councillor.

It is through parties that individuals can learn about the role of local government and what's involved in being a councillor, and access the opportunities to stand for office. IPPR is therefore calling on all parties to commit to a drive to reach 50:50 gender balance in their membership, to increase the pool of potential applicants for elections at all levels of government. It is vital that there is buy-in from the central party machines but these efforts must be an especial priority for local party offices if we are to boost women councillor numbers. This might involve more proactive outreach to local groups, connecting party politics to local issues, and creating an environment which eschews an out-of-date macho or old boys club culture.

Their efforts cannot stop there, however. Our research has shown that in a political world dominated by men, women can value the active encouragement of others. IPPR wants to see a cross-party initiative similar to 'Ask her to stand' becoming established for local elections, to motivate more women to put themselves forward. By embedding these principles in the activities of local party branches and their council members, there is the potential to see more women councillors being offered - and encouraged to take up - cabinet portfolios, progression opportunities, and ultimately positions of leadership.

It's all very well to say that, at the end of the day, it's the electors who make the decisions about who represents them, but parties have a big responsibility. It is their members who, for the most part, become our local councillors and if we are to bring 3,000 new women councillors into office, it is party membership where we first need to look.

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