Women on top – promotional patterns in the House of Commons

By Peter Allen

This week saw the publication of the Counting Women In report ‘Sex and Power 2013’. As I have written elsewhere, with Philip Cowley, the media reacted by focusing on a the most troubling cases, The Observer announcing that the number of women in professions including politics to be ‘plummeting’, despite plummeting of any sort being in short supply.

Much of the focus has been on the number of women in the Cabinet, something we address there, showing that the Cameron Cabinet has exactly the same number of women in right now as Blair did at a comparable point in his premiership (the percentage is slightly lower given an overall increase in the number of ministers eligible to attend Cabinet).

Behind much of this comment, however, seems to lie an assumption that women do badly in parliament – that once elected, they will struggle to get on, and get promoted, relative to their male colleagues. This simply isn’t the case.

Looking at the largest group of women ever elected to parliament at the same time, the 1997 intake, there is no (statistically) significant difference between the promotional paths of men and women, with women actually having more success in reaching the very top jobs in British politics.

178 Labour MPs were elected for the very first time in May 1997, 114 men and 64 women. Out of this group, only 10 ever made it into Cabinet office during the Labour government of 1997-2010 – five men and five women. In terms of percentages, that’s 8% of the Labour women, but only 4% of the men.

The next office down the ministerial ladder has a similar story – only 17% of Labour men made it to office of Minister of State compared to 20% of women.

Now turning to the lesser offices, lower down the governmental pecking order, men outnumber women. Undersecretary of State, for example; 14% of Labour men counted this as their highest office compared to only13% of women, and as for PPS, this was the best it got 18% of men compared to just 16% of women. Finally, looking at those MPs who never got off the backbenches and into governmental office of any kind, this was again the case for more men than women, 47% and 44% respectively.

Highest office reached (n=178); no statistically significant differences (Fisher’s exact test).

The obvious retort to this is that despite the percentages, there are still more men in these positions overall, which is true. However, what this highlights is that the problem is the low number of women in parliament overall, not that they are being passed over for promotion in favour of men.

As academic work, including my own, has repeatedly shown, candidate selection is the real battleground here, in addition to other political pipeline institutions such as local councils – for example, why don’t more women make the transition from councillor to MP? This is a common route to parliament, one which 42% and 63% of the 2010 and 1997 intakes respectively, but three-quarters of MPs who did so are men. A concerted effort to get more women making this move would have a big effect on their numbers in parliament.

Focusing on the number of women in Cabinet may be an easy target and may engage the media, but it misses the point. It is no doubt true that women have suffered from discrimination in parliament, but it would seem that this hasn’t stopped them getting on, ultimately beating their male colleagues to the top jobs.

Peter Allen is a doctoral research student in the Department of Politics. He writes about political careers and has published work in Parliamentary Affairs and British Politics.

From Parliament to Parish: Transparency and the Ultimate Accountability

By Dr Ben Worthy

Transparency laws, and FOI in particular, are intended to bring about increased accountability. When Tony Blair passed the Freedom of Information in 2000 it is unlikely he had Walberswick parish council specifically in mind. However, at the beginning of October five members of the parish council stepped down following what they claimed was a lengthy FOI campaign that was draining their resources (and it seems their patience).

They aren’t the only politicians to pay the ultimate price because of FOI. The 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal, in part a result of FOI, is still claiming careers. There has also been a drip of politicians who paid the price elsewhere. The leader of the Scottish Conservatives stepped down in 2006 over spending on taxis revealed through requests and Ian Paisley Jnr, member of the Northern Irish Assembly, stepped down following FOI revelations of inappropriate lobbying in 2008. Over in the Republic of Ireland one councillor was imprisoned when an FOI revealed corruption and widespread parking fine abuse was revealed at another authority.

FOI can be a powerful weapon of accountability. But it needs the right circumstances. Many of the cases above were driven by journalists with the time, patience and tenacity to pursue their case. Transparency doesn’t create a new ‘magic’ solution to accountability but it does work with other forces to bring it about. Think of the MPs’ expenses here, driven by journalists but was made possible by a leak. At local level it is often an extra weapon in an on-going struggle – it often forms part of wider campaigns on a specific (often controversial) issue that includes the media, letters and attendance at meetings (see this example).

In the case of Walberswick it is alleged the ‘over 100’ requests were driven by four residents in the area. Research shows FOI is very rarely used at Parish level and it is possible it was part of a wider struggle. It is probable that wider ‘local politics’ was to blame and that is not just the volume.

However, although it doesn’t work alone, FOI does have interesting effects. One local councillor in a UCL study of FOI and local government study spoke of how FOI brings an element of unpredictability to what politicians and officials have to account: ‘it is funny what you get pulled about’. It may be the forgotten away day, staff phone calls or use of a limousine. A classic issue was payments to celebrities to switch on Christmas lights. This can also be seen in the publication of all the £500 spending data: stories about councils spending on frozen foods, crematoria or suits of armour fit in the ‘unexpected’ category (see here for some background).

What is equally as interesting is how politicians react. Given its ability to spring surprises politicians rapidly go off FOI. Many, unsurprisingly, blame the Act for handing a weapon to enemies:

The truth is that the FOI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists. For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet. The information is neither sought because the journalist is curious to know, nor given to bestow knowledge on ‘the people’. It’s used as a weapon.

That, of course, is Mr Tony Blair. His scepticism was echoed by Cabinet Secretary Gus O’ Donnell.

Yet not all politicians or officials react badly. There are, it appears, no recorded examples of officials obstructing requests. Some politicians see it as an opportunity to open up and engage with the public-the Justice Committee concluded that FOI was, on balance, a good thing:

The Freedom of Information Act has enhanced the UK’s democratic system and made our public bodies more open, accountable and transparent. It has been a success and we do not wish to diminish its intended scope, or its effectiveness.

Transparency will continue to be used as a tool of accountability, often for small issues and occasionally claiming careers. This is what it was intended to do. Yet this is exactly what upsets whose support it needs.

This is an extended version of an article in the Local Government Chronicle.

Career politicians are elected young, promoted quickly and dominate the highest offices of state

By Peter Allendoctoral researcher and sessional lecturer in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London.

Originally posted on the British Politics and Policy at LSE blog.

Writing about Jeremy Hunt for The Guardian the other week, John Harris lamented that Hunt, like many of colleagues in our political elite ‘style themselves as expert players of the game, but know far too little about the political fundamentals’. It is widely accepted that this political class, comprised of young and fiercely partisan political operatives who are entrenched in the ways of Westminster, has ‘triumphed’, with career politicians dominating the House of Commons, resulting in claims that parliament is desperately out of touch. The emergence of the ‘professional’ route into politics stands in contrast to the longer-established traditional route via local councils, whereby prospective MPs would rack up experience at the local level before turning their hand to national politics.

What do these changes mean for how politics works? Parliamentary scholar Philip Cowley has noted that these same patterns of ‘career politicians’ reaching the top appear to be present in our current three main party leaders, and has also suggested that we may be looking at a twin-track career path within the Commons, with preferential promotional routes for those MPs with pre-election Westminster experience, something that would seem to be the case. At the same time, the lack of local council experience in the coalition cabinet is also clear, with only Theresa May, Eric Pickles and Vince Cable having been local councillors.

For MPs who want to get anywhere fast, it would seem that being close to your party, and being part of the Westminster village, is everything. MPs who worked in politics and around Westminster prior to their election to the Commons also dominate the most important governing roles in the country (those frontbench positions in all parties). Of the 242 MPs elected for the very first time in 1997, 51.7 per cent of those MPs who made it to Cabinet-level positions had this sort of insider experience compared to only 10.3 per cent who had experience on local councils. 44.8 per cent of those MPs whose only political experience was having served on local councils remained backbenchers for the thirteen years following their initial election or until they left the Commons, whichever came first. This was the case for less than a quarter of MPs whose sole political experience was having worked in or around politics at Westminster prior to their election.

MPs with insider backgrounds were also more likely to be promoted in their first term, with 60.5 per cent of these MPs making into frontbench roles before 2001 compared to only 51.7 per cent of those MPs with local council experience. In terms of which offices these first promotions landed them in, 28.9 per cent of insider MPs bagged jobs at the Minister of State level compared to only 6.9 per cent of MPs with local experience whilst the opposite was true of the lower level role of Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) which was the first office destination of 62.1 per cent of MPs with local experience and only 36.8 per cent of those with insider experience.

These insiders are also more likely to enter parliament at a younger age, with 56 per cent of these MPs entering parliament in their thirties compared to only 24.8 per cent of those MPs with local council experience. In turn, age seems to be a useful predictor of reaching very high office, with over 90 per cent of MPs reaching cabinet-level positions being elected between the ages of thirty and fifty. It appears that being close to Westminster and your party prior to election in the form of working for a party or in other political Westminster-based jobs is a catalyst to being elected at a younger age, being promoted faster and higher than other MPs, and ultimately to a high-flying Commons career and a seat at the top table. Is this phenomenon adding to the dislocation that many see as occurring between our politicians and the electorate?

The tone and content of criticisms regarding the ‘political class’ that focus on the character of our politicians, not just the system they are a part of or the outcomes provided by it, suggest that there is a wider problem facing our political elites with many people seeing them as being unrepresentative of the wider population and lacking in legitimacy. It is less clear that there is an obvious culprit for this. Despite the fact that the Commons is dominated by whitemiddle-class men, and the current cabinet dominated by millionaires, the criticisms of our political elite are focused on more abstract notions of not being ‘real people’ as opposed to more specific, and ultimately more reparable, claims by traditionally underrepresented groups such as women or ethnic minorities (both of whom are still underrepresented in the Commons in proportion to their numbers in the population overall). Clearly, parties cannot implement all ‘real person’ shortlists when selecting candidates.

The role of parties has changed in the past fifty years, what political scientist Peter Mair called the ‘withdrawal into the institutions’, with the activities of parties now focused heavily on the national political scene as opposed to being rooted in local communities. Getting involved in politics has become a marginal activity, with one estimate placing the number of people seriously involved in political activism in the UK at only 100,000. When a broader decline in participation is combined with this withdrawal, it is inevitable that activism will professionalize for that small minority who start early and stay involved in politics. My research suggests that early, intense and professional engagement will pay dividends in the longer run, with this uniquely highly-involved group putting themselves in prime position to end up running the country.

Career politicians are elected young, are promoted quickly, and dominate the highest frontbench offices. These patterns reflect broader processes at work in British political life. Politics is of minor interest to many people, something peripheral to their daily lives – to paraphrase Mair once more, the public have withdrawn from political life and the parties have withdrawn into the institutions. My research highlights that they have also withdrawn into themselves, picking only their favoured sons (and occasionally daughters) for the very top jobs. Should we be concerned about this? Most probably, as a smaller gene pool from which our elites are selected is likely to result in a smaller scope for original political thought, something we all want. But there is no silver bullet or quick fix. A reappraisal of what we want from our politicians, and what they can realistically provide us with, is required.

Follow Peter on Twitter @peteraallen and read more of his research on his website. The article this blog is based on is available at Parliamentary Affairs Advance Access.


…but is it Good News for Women?

By Dr. Meryl Kenny (UNSW) and Dr. Fiona Mackay (Edinburgh)

Originally posted on the Gender Politics at Edinburgh blog.

Political pundits are claiming the results of the 2012 local government elections are “good news” for the SNP, as the largest party in local politics, and “good news” for resurgent Scottish Labour, which held onto the city of Glasgow. We ask –  but is there good news for women’s representation?

  • The overall headline figures are up from 21.6 % in 2007, to a new high of 24.3% in 2012.
  • The number of women councillors elected in 2012 has increased from 263 in the last local elections to a total of 297, an overall increase of 34 women councillors.
  • South Lanarkshire tops the league table with 34.3% female councillors, whilst Inverclyde takes last place with just one female councillor (5%).

While these numbers represent a modest improvement on previous elections – and a record performance since the mid 1990s – the general trend remains one of stalled progress.

To put these results into perspective:

  • Less than 1:4 Scottish councillors is a woman.
  • These numbers are particularly disappointing in the context of electoral results elsewhere in the UK. For example, 40% of councillors elected in the 36 English metropolitan councils are women, and several councils have achieved gender parity or better, including Bury (64% women), South Tyneside (57%) and Gateshead (55%)[1].

We’re a long way from saying goodbye to the male, pale and stale face of Scottish local politics.

How did the parties do?

Most noteworthy are the improved results for the Scottish Labour party (see Table 1). The dismal performance of the party in terms of women’s representation at local level has stood in stark contrast to the party’s trailblazing performance in the Scottish Parliament, where the party achieved 50/50 in 1999 and maintained gender balance in its parliamentary group until 2011. In response to our report on the low numbers of women candidates standing in the 2012 local elections, Scottish Labour reported that it had put into action a policy placing women candidates in half of all vacant seats (read more here).

This was part of a wider process of modernization of candidate recruitment at local level within the party. Although the number of Labour women councillors elected is still low (26.1%), these figures do represent significant progress – an increase of just over eight percentage points – from the party’s poor performance in 2007 (17.5%).

We can see the impact of Labour’s equality measures in the key contests of Edinburgh and Glasgow, where the party’s strong performance has helped to boost headline figures.

In Edinburgh:

  • While the number of female councillors elected has dropped overall (from 17 in 2007 to 15 in 2012), the number of Labour women has increased from 5 out of 15 Labour councillors in 2007 (33.3%)[2] to 8 out of 20 Labour councillors in 2012 (40%).  In contrast only 2 out of 18 SNP councillors in the capital are female (11%)

In Glasgow:

  • Women were 10 out of 45 Labour councillors in 2007 (22%), rising to 14 out of 44 Labour councillors in 2012 (31.8%).  In contrast, 7 out of 27 SNP Glasgow councillors are women (25.9%).
  • Overall, the percentage of women on Glasgow City Council has increased from 24% in 2007 (19 women out of 79 councillors) to 30.3% in 2012 (24 women out of 79 councillors).

Turning next to the SNP, it has also seen the percentage of women councillors elected rise from the last elections (from 21.2% in 2007 to 24.8% in 2012). The party has the highest actual number of women councillors of any of the parties (105 to Labour’s 103). Yet this translates into only 1 in 4 of SNP councillors.  The party’s performance at the local level mirrors that at Scottish Parliament level, where in 2011, only 27.5% of SNP MSPs were women.

As previously reported, the SNP is drafting a new equalities strategy, including new guidance and advice to party branches, and a taskforce has been appointed, under the leadership of NEC member Julie Hepburn, to address the problem of women’s under representation at both local and Scottish parliamentary levels.

The Scottish Greens were lauded for having the highest proportion of female candidates (40.7%) this time around. The party’s equality mechanisms are supposed to ensure that women candidates are fairly placed in winnable seats, but this hasn’t translated into improved numbers of Green women councillors in 2012. Only 4 out of the 14 Green councillors are women (28.6%), albeit in the context of small numbers overall.

The Liberal Democrats have returned to their 2003 levels of performance on women’s representation, with women making up 26 of 71 elected councillors (36.6%). This improvement, however, is set in the wider context of a collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote across Scotland, which makes it difficult to make strong conclusions about the party’s performance.

The Conservatives have marginally improved on their 2007 performance, rising from 23.8% women councillors in 2007 to 24.3% in 2012, although again this is in the context of small numbers overall. The percentage of women Independents/Others remains low at 15.3%.  Only around 1 in 6 Independent/Other councillors is a woman.

Turning finally to patterns of representation across local authorities, the picture is one of wide variation (see Table 2). Only 5 of the 32 local authority councils have achieved levels of women’s representation of 30% or more. These are:

  • Aberdeenshire (33.8%)
  • Glasgow (30.3%)
  • Moray (30.8%)
  • South Ayrshire (30%)
  • South Lanarkshire (34.3%)

Unlike some of their counterparts south of the border, no Scottish council has achieved gender balance. The laggards on women’s representation are:

  • East Lothian (2 women councillors, 8.7%)
  • Western Isles (3 women councillors, 9.7%)
  • Orkney (2 women councillors, 9.5%)
  • Inverclyde (1 woman councillor, 5%). Vaughan Jones (Labour) is Inverclyde’s first woman councillor elected since 2007.

Over a third of all councils in Scotland have not broken through the 20% barrier. In addition to the ‘laggards’ listed above, this includes:

  • Dumfries and Galloway (17%)
  • East Renfrewshire (20%)
  • Falkirk (18.8%)
  • Midlothian (16.7%)
  • North Lanarkshire (20%)
  • Scottish Borders (17.6%)
  • Shetland (13.6%)

These dismal figures should surely serve as a wake-up call to parties and councils that something has to change in order to make local politics more inclusive, and to ensure that local councils look like the communities they represent. As we have noted elsewhere, the time has come for tough action on women’s representation in Scotland.

Our initial analysis of the figures can be found in the tables below. We will be posting more detailed analysis of candidate and councillor breakdowns, as well as trends over time in coming weeks.

Table 1: Male and Female Councillors by Party 2012

Party Women Councillors Men Councillors Total Councillors Percentage Women (% 2007)
Labour 103 291 394 26.1% (17.5%)
SNP 105 319 424 24.8% (21.2%)
Liberal Democrats 26 45 71 36.6% (31.3%)
Conservatives 28 87 115 24.3% (23.8%)
Green 4 10 14 28.6% (50%)
Independent/Other 31 171 202 15.3% (20.8%)*
Total 297 923 1220** 24.3%

*2007 candidate selection figures are taken from the Electoral Reform Society, which includes the Greens in the Independent/Other category.

**Excluding the ward of Dunoon in Argyll & Bute, where vote will be conducted next week.

Table 2: Male and Female Councillors by Local Authority 2012

# Local Authority

Women Councillors

Men Councillors

Total Councillors

 Percentage Women

1 Aberdeen City





2 Aberdeenshire





3 Angus





4 Argyll and Bute*





5 Clackmannanshire





6 Dumfries and Galloway





7 Dundee City





8 East Ayrshire





9 East Dunbartonshire





10 East Lothian





11 East Renfrewshire





12 City of Edinburgh





13 Falkirk





14 Fife





15 Glasgow





16 Highland





17 Inverclyde





18 Midlothian





19 Moray





20 Na h-Eileanan Siar





21 North Ayrshire





22 North Lanarkshire





23 Orkney





24 Perth and Kinross





25 Renfrewshire





26 Scottish Borders





27 Shetland





28 South Ayrshire





29 South Lanarkshire





30 Stirling





31 West Dunbartonshire





32 West Lothian










*Excluding the ward of Dunoon, where vote will be conducted next week.

[1] Initial results provided by the Centre for Women and Democracy.

[2] This then dropped to 4 Labour women in 2008 (26.7%) after the death of Elizabeth Maginnis.

More of the Same? Women and the Scottish Local Government Elections 2012

By Dr. Meryl Kenny (UNSW) and Dr. Fiona Mackay (Edinburgh)

Thirteen years after devolution heralded a ‘new dawn’ in women’s representation – with Nordic levels of women MSPs elected to the first Scottish Parliament – the story remains very different at local government level. Less than 1 in 4 candidates for next month’s local government elections are women, leaving the face of local politics looking decidedly ‘male, pale, and stale’ [1]. 1 in 7 council wards is contested by men only. Whilst all-women shortlists have attracted controversy both North and South of the border, the continuation of these all-male shortlists and contests largely goes unnoticed. With local government in crisis around perceived problems of legitimacy, representativeness and quality, this raises questions as to the lessons learned, future prospects, and actions needed if there is to any real progress on women’s representation in Scotland. We argue that the time has come for tough action on women’s representation, or nothing is going to change anytime soon.

What are the lessons learned from the Scottish Parliament’s success? First, change doesn’t happen on its own. The high numbers of women elected to the Scottish Parliament were not the result of luck or ‘trickle up’ or natural evolution, but were achieved through sustained campaigning and bold party action. In short, gender quotas work. But the puzzle remains: why haven’t quotas ‘caught on’ elsewhere in the political system? Currently, the Scottish Parliament has 45 women MSPs (34.8%), compared with only 22% of Scottish MPs, 17% Scottish MEPs, and 21.6% of Scottish local councillors. Of particular note are trends at the local level, where the percentage of women councillors has flat-lined over the past four elections, hovering around 22% overall.

Change can happen when there’s a shake up of the system. Reformers had high hopes that the introduction of a PR-STV electoral system in local government in the run-up to the 2007 elections would rejuvenate local politics and provide new opportunities for women to be selected and elected. However, progress did not materialize, instead depressingly, it was more of the same. In fact, there was a marked drop in the number of women candidates selected and a small decrease in the number of women councillors elected.

What are the prospects, then, for the local government elections in 2012? Supporters of STV, such as the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), had hoped that the unrealized progressive promise of STV would materialize in the second elections, once the new system had bedded down. The candidate lists have now been released, and our initial analysis of the raw figures shows that the numbers are virtually unchanged from 2007. None of the parties, with the exception of the Scottish Greens, have implemented effective equality measures. This suggests that the number of women likely to take up seats in local councils across Scotland will either stall or fall in 2012. Ethnic minority candidate breakdowns are not yet available, but the evidence suggests these numbers also will be low.

Some headline figures:

  • Women are 591 of 2497 total candidates (23.6%, compared to 22.5% in 2007 and 27.7% in 2003).
  • Women are 95 out of 362 Conservative candidates (26.2%).
  • Women are 138 out of 497 Labour candidates (27.7%).
  • Women are 69 out of 247 Liberal Democrat candidates (27.9%).
  • Women are 149 out of 614 SNP candidates (24.3%).
  • Women are 35 out of 86 Green candidates (40.7%).
  • Women are 105 out of 691 Independent/Other candidates (15.2%).
  • 56 out of 353 wards (15.9%) have no women candidates standing for election.
  • 9 out of 32 local authority areas (28%) have 20% or fewer female candidates standing.
  • The best local authorities in terms of women candidates are Clackmannanshire (36.7%) and Angus (34%), although the current proportion of women councillors in each authority is substantially lower (22.2% and 27.6% respectively).
  • Inverclyde, currently an all-male council, has only one woman standing (Vaughan Jones, Labour) out of 38 total candidates (2.6%).
  • In Glasgow City, where the SNP hope to sweep the board after Labour’s internal strife, 2 out of 3 SNP slates are male only. This suggests that they aren’t prepared to ‘risk’ women in target wards.

What actions are needed? Well, STV isn’t the answer – at least, not on its own. STV was sold as ‘good for women’ and a step forward from first-past-the-post (FPTP), in terms of opening up voter choice. In 2007, the ERS heralded the introduction of STV as a ‘small step’ that would ‘lead to a giant leap in democracy for local government.’ [2] The ERS has consistently argued that STV opens up more opportunities for small parties and Independents, which may benefit women, and that multi-member wards encourage parties to run gender-balanced and more ethnically diverse tickets.

There is little international evidence to support this optimistic view. While some commentators see STV as largely gender-neutral, others suggest that STV can be disadvantageous, especially when operating with smaller size wards, as is the case in Scotland. Indeed, none of the relatively few countries that use STV can be said to be ‘trailblazers’ on women’s representation. For example, a smaller proportion of women are returned under STV to the Irish Dáil (15%) than under FPTP to the Westminster House of Commons (22%).

We are sceptical that a system that facilitates the rise of Independent candidates provides an opportunity for women, as the ERS suggests. STV advantages individual candidates with access to time, money and political networks, most of whom tend to be men. Our figures bear out our concerns, as around 85% of all Independent and small party local government candidates in 2012 are men. International research also suggests that parties are less likely to run gender-balanced tickets in small-size wards (3-5 seats), than they are in larger wards (5-7+ seats) where they are more likely to pick up multiple seats [3].

Experience to date suggests parties – rather than electoral systems – are the key factors in promoting women’s political representation. The barriers to women’s access to political office are well-documented, and there are a range of measures that parties can take to counteract these obstacles. If Scotland is to make further headway, parties need to demonstrate that they are serious about changing the face of Scottish politics and also take determined action by introducing and implementing effective equality measures at local level. Lessons can be learned from the Scottish Greens, who are running 40.5% female candidates, who are fairly placed in winnable seats. The party has gender balance mechanisms that are triggered if the percentage of female or male candidates drops below 40%, or where the distribution of winnable seats looks unequal. The prospect of central intervention means that local selectors keep these equality criterion to the front of their minds when selecting candidates, according to the Green Party. This mechanism did not need to be triggered in 2012, suggesting that a general culture of gender equality has become institutionalized in the Greens [4].

What could parties do?

  • Field equal numbers of male and female candidates overall.
  • Ensure that nominations for target wards specifically and target local authority areas more generally are equally distributed between male and female candidates.
  • Where parties are standing more than one candidate in a council ward, these should be gender-balanced tickets.
  • If parties distributing literature suggesting how voters should rank candidates (as the SNP is doing in some local authority areas), parties could suggest that voters rank female candidates first on their ballots.

However, the reluctance of the major parties to make equality guarantees and wider trends of slippage in women’s representation over time raises the question as to whether women’s representation is too important to be left up to political parties. Has the time come to consider statutory quotas, by which we mean legislation which requires parties to take positive action on women’s representation, following the example of countries like Spain, Belgium, France, and even the Republic of Ireland, which is currently drawing up electoral quota legislation?

Why does women’s representation matter? It is widely accepted that men and women should play an equal role in political decision-making to ensure legitimacy, representativeness and quality. We need local councils that look like their communities and that also draw upon ‘all talents.’ How can we afford for it to be otherwise? Indeed, recent media coverage has begun to talk about the ‘merit’ of women’s representation, for example, highlighting the paucity of talented Labour men at Holyrood [5].

Whilst the link between women’s political presence and the promotion of women-friendly policies is far from straightforward, nonetheless, there is considerable evidence to suggest that women politicians ‘make a difference’, or, more accurately, that more gender-balanced parliaments and councils do. What is at stake? In times of austerity and welfare state retrenchment, it is crucial that women’s voices and perspectives (in all their diversity) are included in the process. This is especially the case at the local level, where difficult decisions are made and cuts will hit hardest. Evidence suggests it is harder for progressive policies, such as action to tackle domestic violence, to rise up the political agenda in male-dominated local government than, for example, in the more gender-equal Scottish Parliament. Whilst the Scottish Parliament’s innovative domestic violence strategy has been widely lauded, it stands or falls at local level where it is implemented on a daily basis. Worryingly, recent data from Scottish Women’s Aid reports that, in real terms, 61% of refuge groups have experienced a reduction in the level of funding received from their local authority [6] (2009-2010).

The May 3 elections will almost certainly bring ‘more of the same’ to Scottish local government. But, it should serve as a wake-up call to politicians, activists and voters alike that something has to change, and soon.

[1] We borrow this expression from Professor James Mitchell’s (University of Strathclyde) observation of the membership of the SNP.

[2] ERS Website: http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/local-government-in-england/ (accessed 16 April 2012).

[3] http://archive.scottish.parliament.uk/business/committees/equal/papers-04/eop04-03.pdf

[4] Correspondence with Scottish Green Party Elections and Campaigns Committee.

[5] Kevin McKenna ‘If only Holyrood appreciated women’, The Observer, 8 April 2012: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/apr/08/alex-salmond-holyrood-johann-lamont

[6] Scottish Women’s Aid (2010): http://www.scottishwomensaid.org.uk/assets/files/Funding%20of%20Women’s%20Aid%20services%20report.pdf

Table 1: Male and Female Candidates by Local Authority

# Local Authority Women Candidates Male Candidates Total Candidates Percentage Women
1 Aberdeen City 29 83 112 25.9%
2 Aberdeenshire 39 90 129 30.2%
3 Angus 17 33 50 34.0%
4 Argyll and Bute 17 61 78 21.8%
5 Clackmannanshire 11 19 30 36.7%
6 Dumfries and Galloway 16 66 82 19.5%
7 Dundee City 13 49 62 20.9%
8 East Ayrshire 12 39 51 23.5%
9 East Dunbartonshire 12 33 45 26.7%
10 East Lothian 8 36 44 18.2%
11 East Renfrewshire 8 32 40 20.0%
12 City of Edinburgh 30 98 128 23.4%
13 Falkirk 11 42 53 20.8%
14 Fife 46 116 162 28.4%
15 Glasgow 53 172 225 23.5%
16 Highland 41 129 170 24.1%
17 Inverclyde 1 37 38 2.6%
18 Midlothian 9 32 41 21.9%
19 Moray 14 33 47 29.7%
20 Na h-Eileanan Siar 6 57 63 9.5%
21 North Ayrshire 17 52 69 24.6%
22 North Lanarkshire 22 104 126 17.5%
23 Orkney 8 38 46 17.4%
24 Perth and Kinross 21 57 78 26.9%
25 Renfrewshire 18 62 80 22.5%
26 Scottish Borders 16 56 72 22.2%
27 Shetland 6 37 43 13.9%
28 South Ayrshire 15 29 44 34.1%
29 South Lanarkshire 37 101 138 26.8%
30 Stirling 9 36 45 20%
31 West Dunbartonshire 12 33 45 26.7%
32 West Lothian 17 45 62 27.4%
TOTAL 591 1906 2497 23.6%

Table 2: Male and Female Candidates by Party

Party Female Candidates Male Candidates Total Candidates Percentage Women (Percentage Women 2007)
Labour 138 359 497 27.7% (19.3%)
SNP 149 465 614 24.3% (21.5%)
Liberal Democrats 69 178 247 27.9% (30.9%)
Conservatives 95 267 362 26.2% (24.6%)
Green 35 51 86 40.7% (N/A)*
Independent/Other 105 586 691 15.2% (20.8%)
Total 591 1906 2497 23.6% (22.5%)

*2007 candidate selection figures are taken from the Electoral Reform Society (linked here), which include the Greens in the Independent/Other category.

Table 3: List of Council Wards Contested Only by Male Candidates

# Ward Local Authority
1 Banff and District Aberdeenshire
2 Troup Aberdeenshire
3 Peterhead South and Cruden Aberdeenshire
4 Mid-Formartine Aberdeenshire
5 Arbroath West and Letham Angus
6 Cowal Argyll and Bute
7 Dunoon Argyll and Bute
8 Castle Douglas and Glenkens Dumfries and Galloway
9 Abbey Dumfries and Galloway
10 Nith Dumfries and Galloway
11 Strathmartine Dundee City
12 Kilmarnock East and Hurlford East Ayrshire
13 Bishopbriggs South East Dunbartonshire
14 North Berwick Coastal East Lothian
15 Haddington and Lammermuir East Lothian
16 Giffnock and Thornliebank Ward East Renfrewshire
17 Busby, Clarkston and Eaglesham Ward East Renfrewshire
18 Corstorphine/Murrayfield City of Edinburgh
19 Fountainbridge/Craiglockhart City of Edinburgh
20 Carse, Kinnaird & Tryst Falkirk
21 Lower Braes Falkirk
22 Howe of Fife and Tay Coast Fife
23 Leven, Kennoway and Largo Fife
24 Maryhill/Kelvin Glasgow
25 Thurso Highland
26 Landward Caithness Highland
27 Fort William and Ardnamurchan Highland
28 Inverclyde East Inverclyde
29 Inverclyde East Central Inverclyde
30 Inverclyde North Inverclyde
31 Inverclyde West Inverclyde
32 Inverclyde South West Inverclyde
33 Elgin City South Moray
34 Barraigh, Bhatarsaigh, Eirisgeigh agus Uibhist a Deas Na h-Eileanan Siar
35 Beinn na Foghla agus Uibhist a Tuath Na h-Eileanan Siar
36 Sgire an Rubha Na h-Eileanan Siar
37 Steornabhagh a Tuath Na h-Eileanan Siar
38 North Coast and Cumbraes North Ayrshire
39 Cumbernauld North North Lanarkshire
40 Coatbridge West North Lanarkshire
41 Coatbridge South North Lanarkshire
42 Fortissat North Lanarkshire
43 Thorniewood North Lanarkshire
44 Renfrew North Renfrewshire
45 Erskine and Inchinnan Renfrewshire
46 Jedburgh and District Scottish Borders
47 Hawick and Hermitage Scottish Borders
48 North Isles Shetland
49 Kyle South Ayrshire
50 Girvan and South Carrick South Ayrshire
51 Clydesdale South South Lanarkshire
52 Dunblane and Bridge of Allan Stirling
53 Stirling East Stirling
54 Clydebank Central West Dunbartonshire
55 Livingston South West Lothian
56 Bathgate West Lothian

Originally posted on the blog of the Gender and Politics Research Group, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh.

Too many councillors leaving leaves councils too homogeneous

Tulip Siddiq is a Camden Borough Councillor and Birkbeck alumnus and Peter Allen is a doctoral student in the Department of Politics.

Councillor turnover is an under-researched and under-addressed problem facing councils across the country today. It is best defined as a councillor leaving their council duties for any reason other than electoral loss.

The 2010 Census of Local Authority Councillors shows that only 67.5 per cent of councillors were certain that they would stand for re-election, with the remaining 32.5 per cent being either unsure or definitely not standing again. This is even worse in London, with just over half (51.3 per cent) of councillors signalling their intention not to stand again.

Explanations of councillor turnover are not straightforward and it is possible to highlight several factors that are in play.

What is clear is that it is a phenomenon that affects male and female councillors differently, with existing research has consistently finding that women councillors are more likely to drop out after a single term, a finding replicated across the 1990s and into the new millennium.

The 2010 Census of Local Authority Councillors finds 69.1 per cent of men definitely standing for re-election compared to 63.5 per cent of women.

Political scientists Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher have noted that this leads to a ‘double-whammy’ for councils, whereby younger, more diverse councillors are standing down at the same time as older, more traditional councillors are remaining in their positions.

This is not a positive step in terms of increasing the number of individuals from traditionally under-represented groups like women and ethnic minority councillors.

However, another potential line of questioning is whether councillor turnover is a bad thing in itself?

It is possible to argue that it is not, and that having new faces in our council chambers on a fairly regular basis is good for our politics, and in turn the electorate. The catch here, though, is that if it is the same people staying for longer, and the same people dropping out quickly, the theoretically anticipated regular overhaul of practice and personnel simply doesn’t happen and instead facilitates the proliferation of the status quo.

Existing research has shown non-political factors to be the most instrumental in a councillor’s decision to drop out of their elected duties. The two key areas of note here are the impact of being a councillor on both their working and family lives.

Are there solutions to address these concerns which will in turn encourage councillors, especially women councillors, to remain in their elected positions for longer than they currently do?

Currently, the average basic salary for councillors is around £6,000, rising to an average of just under £10,000 in London. Therefore, most councillors will have another ‘day job’ in order to supplement their income.

This creates a vicious cycle whereby councillors work in a non-council job during the day and then perform their council duties in the evening. Unfortunately, council officers who are meant to support councillors work during the day which means there is often a time lag between cases being taken up and policies being implemented.

One possible solution is to create some sort of legal protection for councillors, whereby they could claim a day or two a week from their employers to work as a councillor, and that this would be seen as a prestigious thing (in time) for the company.

The main point is that it is not just a case of councillors putting in ‘face time’ at these meetings.

Hours have to be dedicated to doing casework for constituents especially in poverty-stricken areas. Time has to be spent preparing for meetings where councillors might be contributing to council policy or strategy. Days are spent researching and writing speeches for full council meetings especially if there are deputations from your ward.

As noted above, one explanation put forward for the high turnover of women councillors is that having two jobs leaves no time for family and children. The introduction of some sort of legal protection might mean that councillors could afford to solely concentrate on their council duties and perhaps, be in a better position to retain their status.

A second option is the introduction of term-limits for local councillors.

The introduction of term-limits to local elected service would ensure that the turnover of councillors discussed above was enforced as opposed to something that would be left to occur organically.

Existing evidence is mixed as to whether term-limits benefit women, although it should be noted that much of the existing evidence is taken from the United States, and as such, is not directly applicable here.

Having said that, it should be pointed out that term-limits would only achieve this desired aim of a more diverse set of local councillors if implemented in conjunction with the improved terms of both pay and working arrangements outlined above.

This is a two-strand approach which makes being a councillor both a desirable and possible activity for all kinds of people but at the same time prevents prolonged over-use of this new system by introducing legal limits on how long someone can be a part of it. As such, these ideas tackle issues of both recruitment and incumbency, traditionally gendered problems.

An obvious term-limit would lie around the current average length of service (more or less two four-year terms), although there are arguments in favour of both curtailing or extending this.

The ideas discussed above are simply that; ideas. There lie clear barriers between theoretical concerns and policy implementation, not least in the form of decreased levels of central government funding for local councils. Such barriers should not be transformed into methods of gaining tacit support for the status quo.

If anything, a time such as this is an ideal one to formulate new ideas and to get serious about the improvement of local government in this country.

This article originally appeared on Left Foot Forward

Lies, Statistics and Eric Pickles on Transparency

By Professor Deborah Mabbett

Transparency in government sounds like a good thing. Surely more information is better than less, and an informed public will make more accurate judgments about government policy. However, in complex policy areas, transparency often means selecting and highlighting some presentable facts, while omitting the contextual information needed to interpret those facts. In extremis, the facts become so decontextualised that the public is likely to be misled.

Consider the efforts of Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), to enhance transparency about local government finance. This has brought us some eye-catching statistics. Perhaps one of the most striking was the claim that funding per head for Hackney in 2011-12 will amount to £1043 per person, while in Wokingham it will be a mere £125. Google ‘Hackney 1043 Wokingham 125’ and you can see how many newspapers found this factoid worth repeating from the DCLG press release.

How is this figure arrived at? Using detailed information available for 2010/11, we can get some idea. Hackney spent more per person than Wokingham: 33% more on education, twice as much on social care, 80% more in expenditure on services overall. With various convoluted  pluses and minuses to get to the important if oxymoronic figure of ‘Revenue Expenditure’ (translation: expenditure that has to be financed out of local authority revenue), the gap widens further: Hackney spends 95% more overall. A substantial difference, but not enough to explain why Hackney would get more than eight times the central government funding allocated to Wokingham.

But of course Hackney is not only needier than Wokingham, with more children in local authority schools and more elderly people needing care; it is also poorer, so we would expect lower council tax receipts. Sure enough, council tax per capita in Hackney was about £340, in Wokingham just over £500. The difference which had to be financed by central government in 2010/11 was £2,260 per person in Hackney and £830 in Wokingham. You’ll notice that these figures are higher than those given out by DCLG, and nowhere near as disproportionate: it would seem that Hackney got 2.7 times as much funding from central government as Wokingham, not 8.3 times.

So what accounts for the difference? Funding for local authorities from central government comes in two main forms: specific grants routed via departments, and ‘formula funding’. Mr Pickles’ version of transparency is to shine the light on formula funding, and cast a veil over specific grants. What should we make of this? It is tempting to say that ‘Hackney 1043 Wokingham 125’ is not so much a factoid as a lie: one element of funding was left out in order to deliver a strong message with the other element.

But Mr Pickles is an astute operator, and I assume that he has a defence, which might go like this. A complete measure of central government support for an area would be difficult to produce. It would be difficult to include NHS and Social Security spending, for example, because these are not allocated by local authority area. For transparency aficionados, this is a well-known strategy: selectivity in presenting the data is rationalised by pointing to the difficulty of giving a comprehensive view.

Comprehensiveness is indeed difficult and complicated, so transparency has to be pursued in good faith. The selection of the formula funding number looks like bad faith. DCLG routinely produces statistics on the financing of local authority expenditure broken down into the three elements of council tax, specific grants and formula funding, so why leave specific grants out on this occasion? Perhaps DCLG has not yet got the estimates from other departments for specific grants in 2011/12, but in that case, the honest announcement would have been that Mr Pickles did not know how much support from central government would be received by each local authority. Perhaps the temptation to pacify the LibDems by highlighting the formula funding figure was too great, but it is risky: they will tumble to the fuller story sooner or later. In the meantime, the Tory heartlands are cultivating their grievances against the sponging inner cities. Mr Pickles’ selective illumination has not  helped the quality of public debate.

We need more women councillors for everyone’s benefit

Tulip Siddiq is a Camden Borough Councillor and Birkbeck alumnus and Peter Allen is a doctoral student in the Department of Politics.

The 2010 National Census of Local Authority Councillors, published 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.

This article originally appeared on Left Foot Forward.