There are now eight English metropolitan areas with combined authorities and metro mayors, covering a combined population of 20m. Not one of them has ever elected a woman.
If you take all directly-elected mayors into account, then there are three women out of 24. By way of comparison, there are two Andys, Daves, and Peters apiece.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of people are unhappy about this – and women in the West Midlands Labour party think they’ve spotted an opportunity.
The party should be holding its selection race next summer. But, given that this is possibly the closest race in the country with the biggest electorate outside of London, and given that it’s a region where a popular sitting Tory mayor could be defeated, there is an argument that the party should select its candidate as soon as possible, in order to give them more time to build up a profile. (This is what the Tories have done in London.)
For the West Midlands to have a hope of becoming the first to elect a female metro mayor, though, Labour would have to include at least one woman on the shortlist. This didn’t happen in in 2016, when Siôn Simon was selected against little to no internal opposition.
Cllr Nicky Brennan was first elected to Birmingham City Council this year, and Cllr Liz Clements the year before. Since then they, along with other women in the West Midlands Labour Party, have been speaking out on this issue. I asked them why they feel that none of the metro mayors and so few directly elected mayors are women.
“It’s pretty grim being a women in politics sometimes,” Brennan says. “Just take the word ambitious. For a man this is a good thing, it’s positive, it’s what we expect. But for a woman it’s negative; she’s going to trample all over everyone; she’s a careerist; how dare she get ideas above her station?”
As a result, “The top jobs are seen as ‘men’s work’ and it makes women feel like they can’t apply because society makes them feel that they aren’t good enough. Some of the most able and experienced women I know still doubt themselves and this is something we must try to change.”
In the Labour party, Clements says, “we still have a way to go to overturn the political culture which privileges straight white men.” On BAME representation among elected mayors, Labour is doing better, she notes, citing London’s Sadiq Khan and Bristol mayor Marvin Rees. “This should be our incentive to improve the representation of women among elected mayors.”
Preet Kaur Gill, the MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, points out that 45 per cent of Labour MPs are now female. “This is a brilliant achievement and one that other parties could, and should, learn from.” But it took all-women shortlists to get there. “It is unacceptable for 51 per cent of the population to not be accurately represented in parliament.”
But all-women shortlists are currently illegal for mayoral races, as the 2010 Equalities Act specifies AWS are only available for Parliamentary, devolved, and local government races. So what can the Labour Party do to address the gender imbalance?
Gill points to the Labour Women’s Network. “It’s an extremely empowering internal organisation, which I am very proud to be a part of. It does a great job in supporting and identifying talent in women, but this needs to expand nationally.”
“The 2010 Equalities Act needs to be changed,” Clements says, as this would allow for mayoral races to be included in its remit. “While the Women’s PLP lead the charge on this, we should select our Metro Mayor candidate in the West Midlands via an all-women shortlist and wait to see what happens.”
For now, this would be illegal, but the reprimands are unclear and doing so would ensure the topic is talked about more widely.
Brennan, meanwhile, talks about the underrepresentation of working class women specifically. “It’s also good for women to have role models too. I look at Angela Rayner and think, ‘she was a teenage mum too, if she can do it so can I’.”
Mayoral elections are unlike parliamentary or council ones: if you can’t stand for mayor in one region, it’s very unlikely there’s another nearby you could try instead. So should we be worried that all-women shortlists block more qualified male candidates from becoming mayor somewhere?
“No,” Clements says emphatically. “I worry that for decades patriarchal political culture has blocked women from progressing to leadership positions.”
Mayoral politics doesn’t have to be dominated by men, Gill argues. “If we look at the United States it’s a very different picture. There are women mayors leading governments in many urban areas. European capitals like Rome, Madrid, Paris, Warsaw, and Stockholm also have women mayors. Clearly the UK is lagging behind despite having no shortage of talent.”
So – would any of these specific women consider a run? “I’m just getting to grips with being a newly elected councillor,” Brennan says, “so I would rule myself out.” Gill didn’t comment.
Clements, however, says, “There are more senior women who have more experience than me; I am encouraging them to run and will campaign for them.
“But should no other woman put herself forward I would do so because I don’t want to see a repeat of last time.”
Part of the issue for Labour in the West Midlands last time was that very few candidates, male or female, put themselves forward. Only two men passed the shortlisting interview, with the winner, Siôn Simon, going on to lose what was considered a Labour safe seat. So are there enough interested local women to fill a shortlist?
“Yes,” Clements says, “absolutely, there are lots of talented women across our region who are ready to step up and who will inspire grassroots activists to come out and campaign to take back the elected mayoralty.”
“Of course there are,’ Brennan says. “I think we as party members need to be having conversations with women we think would be great and supporting them to stand.”
Gill adds, “Whether you’re in business or politics, you will know someone who could do the role.”
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