Simply not good enough: female under-representation in local politics
June’s general election was not the first time people visited the polls this year. Across much of the country, local councillors were elected just a month before, and in six English regions we saw the first combined authority mayors taking up their seats. A common theme across all these elections was the gender imbalance. Only 33% of England’s local councillors, 32% of the UK’s MPs, and, staggeringly, 0% of combined authority mayors, are female.
This simply isn’t good enough.
New research from IPPR and gender-balanced politics, we must pay attention to local politics and the new regional structures emerging from devolution deals, alongside Westminster.
In the six combined authorities which elected (male) mayors in May, only 4% of their respective cabinet members are women. With these cabinets largely comprised of council leaders – of which only 17% in England are women, another woeful statistic – women stand little chance of gaining any official role in new and existing combined authorities, a role with voting rights, unless something shifts in the way in which they are structured. In turn, women are set to enjoy very little voice and influence on some of the biggest decisions affecting how services are run and investment allocated within their local regions.
Sadly, while these devolved institutions are new, male-dominated decision-making is not.
IPPR’s research finds that across the member councils of England’s combined authorities, the few women who make it into council cabinets are, more often than not, working in portfolios concerned with children, social care, and community – a social infrastructure which, to date, has been less prominent in the devolution settlements – and less likely to have responsibility for areas such as regeneration, finance, and business. Our interviews with women councillors has shown that sometimes this is by choice and reflects their own interests but on other occasions reflects a lack of confidence in taking on traditionally male roles or a lack of opportunity to do so. The unequal representation of women in these areas has knock on effects, as male-dominated portfolio briefs are often valued in decisions about who should lead councils.
If this situation is to change, combined authority mayors and their cabinets must lead by example and commit that no gender should be represented by less than 45% of the combined authority representatives who enjoy full voting rights and membership. This should be done in a way which is sensitive to ensuring balanced geographical representation but might involve the nomination of women councillors to represent their council with delegated authority, elections by constituent council leaders of councillors to the combined authority board with a rotating all-women shortlist, and/or appointing additional members to the combined authority boards on a portfolio-basis to open up opportunities to women councillors and ensure all policy areas are covered.
However, if combined authorities are to become more gender-balanced, local councils and political party branches must also accept responsibility for ensuring a strong pipeline of women leaders. There is a need for an additional 3,000 women councillors across England – an increase of 52% on current levels – if we are to reach 50:50 levels of representation. We could need as many as 12,000 more women coming forward and being selected to make this happen. This is not an insurmountable number but it is unlikely to be achieved without deliberate interventions. Political parties and current councillors should come together to work towards this goal as a target for local elections in 2025, as well as undertake internal reviews of their own processes for attracting and recruiting both members and candidates to see where improvements might be made.
Next year marks the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People’s Act but our politics still falls well short in its representation of women. With a concerted effort and clear commitment, however, there is an opportunity to improve this picture significantly. Our new devolved combined authorities and more established local councils should not wait for Westminster to set the pace of this change but should tackle women’s under-representation head-on to drive it forward.