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Government / Local politics

It's raining white men: on the hidden crisis of diversity in English devolution

There are big elections next week. And no, I haven’t got my dates wrong: in six regions, millions of voters will be going to the polls to elect “metro-mayors”.

It’s an exciting experiment in local democracy – and marks the next stage for Britain’s changing constitution. But before a single vote has been cast, we know a something about the new institutions: there’s a crisis of diversity brewing.

In some ways, England appears to be the exception in this. Devolution in Scotland and Wales was good for women’s representation: outstanding, in fact, when you remember that the Welsh Assembly set a world record in 2003 when it became the first legislative body with equal numbers of men and women. Scotland, too, did well in that first set of elections, with 48 women elected – “Nordic levels” of female representation, as reports said.  

These were high-profile new bodies, with campaigners and parties both striving to ensured gender equality was front and centre even before the buildings were finished. Both Cardiff Bay and Holyrood set the marker for it to become utterly normal for women to lead political parties. In 2016, the last set of elections, there were multiple female party leaders in thoe corridors of each. And while diversity in these institutions has waxed and waned, the number of women has remained consistently higher than at Westminster.

So it’s a grim contrast to witness the latest chapter of devolution in Britain. Put simply, parties have utterly failed to achieve gender equality.

Our research shows that 93 per cent of the most powerful positions – mayoralties and cabinet posts in the new combined authorities – are to be held by men. So dire is the picture that in the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, not one woman will be in a position of power.

Only two cabinet members of all six new Combined Authorities – 5 per cent of the total – will be women. Only one – 3 per cent of the total – is from a Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background.

Why is the picture so bad? First, parties hold all the cards; independents find it hard to get a look in, even at a local level where voters are more open to candidates without party labels. With some of these devolution deals only being confirmed a month or two ago, party have rushed to select what they see as the ‘safest’ candidates. And with the cabinets formed from current council leaders, it’s no surprise women are almost totally excluded.   


This isn’t an issue of skill: no one can say there aren’t women with the abilities and knowledge out there to do these roles. But there are big blockages in the system: the number of women council leaders has barely changed in England, up from 14 per cent to 17 per cent in 10 years, according to new Fawcett Society/LGiU research. There is a crisis of representation throughout local government. That means when parties rush to select the ‘Big Beasts’ for metro-mayors, women don’t even feature. 

In these particular elections, power is being entrenched into the hands of the existing leaders leaders who come from one demographic. It’s made worse by a majoritarian voting system that too often favours the safe candidates, rather than those from marginalised or diverse backgrounds. While the mayors themselves will be elected under the Supplementary Vote system, their cabinets will be drawn from existing council leaders, elected under First Past the Post – widely known as the worst system for gender diversity.

Some areas have started to acknowledge the issue. Greater Manchester Combined Authority has assigned twenty deputies, two drawn from each council, to work alongside the cabinet. The deputies are overwhelmingly women, and help to ensure better representation of all local view points and experiences. It’s a positive move, but it’s also a sticking plaster: parties need to deal with the dearth of diversity before the fact, not after.   

It is extraordinary that we are still making the case for politicians to broadly reflect their communities. It’s even more extraordinary we are doing so at a local level, given that this is where most people engage in politics: from rubbish collection to schools, street lighting and day centres.

But there are two specific reasons why it’s a democratic disaster that these elections are entrenching the old boys’ club. The mayoralties and Combined Authorities will be seen as a training ground, a path to power at national level. A diversity crisis here damages all our politics.

The new Combined Authorities simply won’t last or have public buy-in if they only represent one group of people. Sustainable devolution requires people outside the usual suspects having a stake.

They’ve dropped the ball this time. But parties need to do everything they can, way in advance of the next round, to ensure devolution isn’t just entrenching power in the hands of one demographic, but that it is truly democratic.

Katie Ghose is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society. Read the Society’s new report,From City Hall to Citizens’ Hall: Democracy, Diversity and English Devolution’, here.
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