England needs an influx of young, diverse councillors

Retired, white, British-born, independently wealthy. Recognise this type? Local government in England needs a shake-up. A young councillor sets out why the lack of diversity is damaging, and offers ideas for change.

Samir Jeraj
10 May 2013

Much can be said about an organisation by its definition of ‘young’.  While 18 to 25 years is widely accepted as the default,18 to 30 pushes the box closer towards young adults, grown up and settled down.  However, in local government, a ‘young councillor’ is considered to be anyone under the age of 35.  So why is it that young people are largely absent or in a significant minority in local government?

It took Britain just under a century, from the ‘Great Reform Act’ of 1832, to achieve universal suffrage in 1928.  It is easy to derive from this that the history of reform in Britain is one of slow and agonising steps towards a more democratic and fair political system.  One of those small steps happened in 2007 when young people between the ages of 18 to 21 were allowed to stand for election to local government.  But little over a year later, a census of Councillors noted with alarm that “the average age of councillors has increased from 55 years in 1997 to 59 years in 2008 and the proportion under 45 has fallen from 18.4 per cent to 13.1 per cent over the same period.”

As with most problems, there are structural causes. In this case, I’m content to share the blame between the electoral system on one hand and broader social and economic structures on the other.

Electoral systems, such as First Past the Post, breed conservatism and caution amongst political parties. In a system where a single vote can make all the difference between winning and losing, parties tend to select safe and known candidates. In a choice between selecting an older, established local activist or a young newcomer to the area, it is very likely that local parties will stick with the person they know until they step aside. Deselection, or defeat in selection, is a bitter process which often results in the previous candidate running as an independent and splitting the vote.

Young people are often seen as a risk in general, because they are less settled; more likely to have to move away for work, more likely to have a full time job and not dedicate as much of their time, as well as being more likely to have young children and family commitments. A four year term of office is perceived as a long time for someone in their twenties.  Were they to resign, a costly by-election would have to be held with the risk that the incumbent party would lose. At its worst, what can manifest is a deeply unpleasant and negative attitude towards younger candidates and councillors with labels such as ‘bed-sit trot’, ‘not from the area’, and ‘parachuted’ being used.

The solution is fairly simple. Elect local government by Proportional Representation and get rid of the absurd, costly and unrepresentative process of by-elections.  We need to get to grips with the fact that, as a society, we are less settled and more likely to move around for work.

Money is the other major issue facing most young councillors. The average councillor puts in around 22 hours a week, for which they receive an average basic allowance of £6099 per year, meaning approximately £5.38 an hour. For those already in full-time work the law requires that employers provide some time off for duties as an elected representative, but in practice only the most sympathetic employers (the public sector stands out in this regard) will do this. Hence there is a bias towards retired, independently wealthy, and self-employed councillors.  Interestingly where there have been major overhauls of local government, such as in Scotland, councillor basic allowances have been set at far more liveable levels. Unfortunately, such a proposal across local government would be met by such vicious hostility (just type in ‘councillor allowances’ into google) that it is unlikely that anything short of a major reform could achieve this end. Ideally there would be a similar system to Scotland in the rest of the UK, with a decent basic allowance set and then pegged against staff salary rises.  This would also avoid the four yearly battle to raise what is generally terribly low pay in one leap.

However, it is not just young people who are struggling to get a look in at local government elections.  According to recent statistics only 4.1% of Councillors are from ethnic minorities. It is clear from the Scottish experience that PR and improved wages are not enough on their own. Whilst the 2012 elections led to the election of more women and young people in Scotland, only 17 Councillors from ethnic minorities were elected to Scottish Councils out of a total of 1223.

The Welsh Assembly was urged to take action following a report in 2009 which recommended allowing positive action in political party selection of candidates. The report noted that it would take until 2060 to achieve gender balance at the current rate of change.

The Scottish experience of PR and improved pay does show an increased representation of women, but a report from 2009 estimated it would take until 2060 for gender equality to be achieved in Wales alone. The Fawcett Society collected the experiences of ethnic minority women councillors back in 2007 (BME women comprised 168 (0.9%) of 20 000 elected councillors in 2007). Under the title Routes to Power the report found that existing ethnic minority women councillors wanted an overhaul in working culture, professional standards and pay, calling the current system a “dilettante culture”. More troubling was the lack of support, and even discrimination, shown by political parties in the report. This combines with a Local Government culture “driven by egos and personalities” to produce major barriers to fair representation.

The landscape surrounding disabled councillors gets more complex. In 2008, the Councillor census showed that 13.3% identified as being disabled. In part, this could be attributed to the age profile of councillors although there is no data on the age/race/gender profile of disabled councillors. There have, however, been some recent victories for disabled people in public life. Earlier this year, parliament repealed the legislation which excludes people who have experienced mental health issues in their past from standing for election.  As a result, just a few weeks ago, the first person with downs syndrome was elected to a parish council.  

Legislating for changes to the electoral system and to the pay of councillors is relatively straightforward, but changing the internal culture and processes of political parties and councils is a much more difficult challenge. 

Most political parties and local government organisations run mentoring, shadowing, and leadership programmes, often with external charities and partners like Operation Black Vote. But many of the local government programmes have been trimmed back or closed due to cuts. The Labour Party has a Labour Diversity Fund, which can be applied to in order to 'develop talented individuals ' from diverse backgrounds. The Lib Dems recently rejected positive discrimination, but do have a set of internal groups which campaign around gender, race, disability, and sexuality. The Conservatives have also made efforts to become more diverse, part of a move to modernise the party in opposition. They became a Stonewall-accredited employer in 2008, but their journey to improve racial and religious diversity is still a long way from ending.

One more top-down idea is to levy a fine on political parties who fail to select a set of candidates broadly representative of the area they cover. However, this may not necessarily help all under-represented groups either.  Transgender identities were first included in the LGA Councillor Census in 2010. 0.1% of councillors declared that their present gender identity was not the same as at birth. In February 2010, there was one known councillor from the Gypsy/Traveller community which exceeds over 18,600 people (Department of Communities and Local Government).  Unfortunately it is unlikely that a levy or quota system will have much impact when the size of the community is so relatively small.

Some of the answers to the question of how to improve diversity were answered by the DCLG Select Committee, who embarked on an inquiry into diversity and representation amongst councillors. The inquiry, titled 'Councillors in the Community' harvested information from Twitter using the hashtag #YBACouncillor and has taken evidence from a broad range of people and groups. I attended a speed-dating type event in Parliament where members of the committee circulated round tables of former councillors, community activists and other guests in an effort to get an insight into why people stand as councillors.

The final report states:

For too long, council chambers have been dominated by a particular sub-set of the population; too little has been done to change this state of affairs. Constituents should be able to look at their councillors and see people like them. We therefore need to increase the number of women, younger people, black and minority ethnic people, and those from other under-represented groups serving on local authorities. This task will not be easy. It requires political parties to change their cultures; it requires local authorities to take active steps to promote local democratic engagement.

It also concluded:

“We have to consider how employers can be incentivised to give support to, and be proud of, their staff who serve as councillors. Moreover, we cannot shy away from the issue of remuneration: allowances need to be sufficient to recognise that councillors sacrifice not only a significant amount of time, but often part of their earnings as well. “

There is a grim sense of inevitability when you look at the reports from the Councillors' Commission.  From The Power Inquiry, through to reports by Fawcett, and the BME Councillor Taskforce, we learn that better pay, working hours, and a change in the electoral system will improve gender and age representation.  We also learn that creating a broadly representative local government requires looking at internal party processes and community engagement in order to see what works to improve diversity.  But the most significant problems are institutional inertia, a lack of support among the public and a lack of political will at the top. 

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