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Government / Local politics

“The greatest predictor of reaching the council frontbench is being an old white man”

Immediately after this snap election political parties in our towns and cities will start picking candidates to fight the local elections next May.

Metropolitan and unitary authority elections include the London’s boroughs, where half of Britain’s ethnic minorities live. However, London’s diversity is not reflected in town hall council chambers.

Take Lambeth. Visible minority councillors make up less than 20 percent of the elected members, but 60 percent of the population. This picture is reflected in many other ethnically-diverse boroughs.

Black and minority ethnic (BME) representation may be lacking in London – but the capital still provides the bulk of BME councillors nationwide. It is much worse across the country.

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In 2008, the proportion of ethnic minority councillors was 3.7 per cent. The most recent survey puts the figure at just 4 per cent. This compares to BME’s making up 14 percent of the population. A huge gap that is getting bigger as demographics get more ethnically diverse.

Local government’s failure to embrace racial diversity is in stark contrast to Westminster, which is seeing a steady increase in BME MPs with each passing general election, a trend that is set to continue next month.

Council chambers remain stubbornly stuck in the past: the last bastion of the country of yesteryear. Elected members are overwhelmingly white, male and retired.

In London, some inner-city councils have barely more councillors of colour than they did in the radical 1980s heyday when Linda Bellos and the late Bernie Grant turned Lambeth and Haringey into socialist fortresses.

IPPR recently called for Britain to adopt German-style quotas for women councillors. Its reasoning was that only a third of councillors are women, and there has been very little progress in the past 20 years. This is also the case for racial diversity – except that BME communities are twice as under-represented as women.

Aspiring BME politicians are unlikely to embrace quotas, but they do want local politics to get its act together. This is more urgent for parties that would be naturally more cautious of quotas.

The cause of the problem

BME representation in local government is overwhelmingly the result of BME Labour councillors. The last survey found just 2.3 percent of Liberal Democrat and 1.5 percent of Conservative members were BME. All Green party and UKIP councillors were white.

The gap between Tory representation in local and national government is particularly stark given the progress the party has made in the Commons, with 17 MPs of colour and more expected.

A common justification at local level is that BME party activists are thin on the ground, or not putting themselves forward. This is a poor excuse. Sit any group of councillors down and ask them to think hard about who they have met on their travels who would make a good councillor, and they will almost certainly come up with a diverse set of names. The next stage is to send them out to persuade them to stand.

One cause of BME under-representation in town halls is turnover. Ethnic minorities are more likely to serve just one term. This has a negative impact on the overall numbers, but also means that many BME councillors are not hanging around long enough to rise through the ranks.

White councillors are five times more likely to be group leader, and while 21 percent of white councillors make it to the executive or higher, just 14 percent of BME members reach those heights.

Indeed, the greatest predictor of reaching the cabinet or frontbench is not skills or professional background: it’s simply being an old white man.

It is easy to blame this on job and family demands of BME councillors. Yes, a higher proportion have young families and a much lower proportion are retired.

But there is another explanation. As a former councillor myself, I have come across many BME members who report feeling isolated and excluded. Stories of unfair treatment, bullying, and of casual racism at official meetings going unpunished, are surprisingly common.

One contributing factor is that BME members are less likely to have mentors: they were not networked-up with key local figures before being elected. With no-one to show you the ropes and guide you through the labyrinth of local politics, it is simply harder to get on, and easier to fail.

Friendships and unofficial mentoring go a long way to helping a new councillor bed in and thrive. Without this, friction, and even mutual suspicion, can quickly arise when the camaraderie of electioneering gives way to the hard graft of town hall politics.

These are issues of political culture that quotas alone cannot solve, especially with race.


Raising the game

As political parties select their council candidates for next spring, they all need to raise their game to avoid local government falling even further behind Westminster. As well as recruitment, they should also give careful thought to retention.

That doesn’t just mean superficially making BME councillors welcome: it means giving them the sort of advice and guidance that others who are already plugged into local political networks take for granted.

Councils need to go that extra mile to become more racially diverse, because they lag so far behind society at present, and have seen so little progress over the decades.

Local government may have lost some of its prestige and power with centralisation, privatisation and endless austerity cuts. But it remains an important part of civic life and still delivers essential services.

Being a councillor can be an exciting and rewarding role. But there is a task to sell this to people in order to encourage skilled professionals, younger people and more BME citizens to become councillors. Local government needs them to refresh and reinvent itself at this watershed moment.

The fact that many council groups look like they are stuck in a 1950s time-warp is precisely because local parties are not reaching out or supporting from within. Let’s hope things start to change in May next year.

Lester Holloway is a communications professional writing in a personal capacity. He was previously a Labour and Lib Dem councillor. He tweets at @brolezholloway.

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