Since the local elections of May 2019, councillors of all parties and the residents they represent have been thrown from crisis to crisis. The word ‘unprecedented’ has never been used so many times. The following events have coincided with my time as a local councillor: Brexit, a snap general election, the Covid-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and the struggle for racial equality, and the ongoing climate crisis, to name a few. What’s clear is that we desperately need more diverse politicians, who are equipped with the different perspectives needed to rise to these challenges. But who gets involved in politics, and why – and how can we encourage more people to do so?
The fact remains that local politics is still not accessible or diverse enough. Many are keen to assist their local communities through the avenues local politics can represent, but without decent support, and with the significant time commitment and the lack of diversity in many councils, it’s understandable that, from the outside, local politics often doesn’t seem like a worthwhile pursuit. This must be rectified, as we desperately need the people that are currently excluded.
Multiple problems combine to stop diversity in politics. Greens raised the recommendations of the Fawcett society’s analysis of local government two years ago. This year-long study of councils across the country found that half of all disabled women, and many BAME women councillors, face discrimination in multiple forms. Issues regarding the lack of childcare support and flexible working create double barriers for people wanting to get involved in local democracy. The report also called on the government to reintroduce financial support to help disabled people with the costs of being a candidate, and highlighted the need for reasonable adjustments – to name but a few of the many recommendations for improvement.
In Brighton and Hove, some attention has already been drawn to the basic allowance for elected members. This is public information and is an allowance – councillors are not paid employees. I’m not necessarily advocating for salaries for councillors. However, if we want to attract more people into politics, it should not be controversial to note that few will be able to devote time and energy or to reconsider their other job roles and responsibilities without better support; the low rate of allowances can indeed act as a barrier.
The Fawcett Society report into barriers to local government found that, “bringing other elements of the support on offer to councillors into line with the usual expectations of professional roles would enable a more diverse group of people to consider standing for election.” The support includes provision of better assistance for councillors who are also carers, a standardised approach to maternity and paternity leave across England, and looking at flexible working, so that more people can feel able to take part in local democracy even if they have to work.
The report also found that the financial considerations around being a councillor do not fall equally on men and women, and asked government to look at a package of support that would diversify local representation, and boost access for women in particular. There is an important discussion to be had: depending on their circumstances, many people who want to engage in local decision making may well have to consider their economic circumstances. I recognise the privilege in my own position: I’m white, come from a middle class family, and went to university, and it’s unlikely I would have ever run for election if it weren’t for these factors.
We know now that there can be a better way forward. Flexible working (which the pandemic has allowed more of us to see the benefits of), support with allowances and pensions, and elevating the importance of services such as childcare, are all asks that have already been made to local government. We need to ask more of political parties: they need to use their shortlisting processes in a way that promotes marginalised people as electable candidates, they need to ask young people, people of colour and other underrepresented groups to put themselves forward, and they need to provide practical and emotional support during election campaigns. We also need to urgently address the way harassment and abuse are prevalent towards local representatives, so councillors do not have to spend their time reporting hateful comments to the police instead of using the time and energy to help their constituents.
We cannot expect local politics to reflect the diversity of the people we represent, if action is not taken. We need more young people, people of colour, disabled people, LGBTQIA+ people, and women to get involved, but for those that get elected, we need to make local politics less hostile and thus, achieve better policy making. From the Ask Her to Stand campaign, to pushing ahead with the Fawcett Report recommendations in our local city council, to work to develop an anti-racist council and intensifying focus on how to bring the disabled community into our council decision making, there is work underway that I am proud to help champion – but we still have a long way to go.
That’s also because the barriers to elected office hold us all back. For an inclusive, vibrant democracy, inclusion is vital work and we need more young and diverse people to run for election – they might even enjoy it!
The reality too is that taking on the responsibility of being an elected councillor is a rewarding way to put energy into making positive change for residents. The role should be attractive to more people – because we all have so much to offer. Being the person able to help residents resolve problems big and small is a serious undertaking but also an incredibly meaningful one. The ability to attend committee meetings, scrutinise reports, put forward policy ideas and amendments that will directly affect the city and its residents, can lead to tangible results for local communities. Diversity of perspective and approach will only enhance our democracy and lead to better decision-making.
It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation – we need to ensure diverse politicians are elected in order to make local politics a better place to work, and we need to make local politics better in order to encourage more diverse candidates to stand for election. Whichever order it happens in, we need it to happen NOW. It’s not going to be easy, but we desperately need diversity in local politics if we are going to be able to respond to global crises at a local level in a way that meets the needs of all. My Green councillor colleagues and I will keep pushing on this, reflecting on where we could do better and calling for change, and we urge all political parties to do the same, to improve decision making for the benefit of all.