Challenging the Male, Pale and Stale

Aberdeenshire Council — a classic example

Male, pale and stale — the apt description of UK politics. We are governed by old, white men at every level — even after marked improvements in some areas. But not all. Our councils remain dominated by people of the male, pale, stale variety.

With local authority elections just around the corner (Thursday 4th May), there’s a chance to change this. But my expectations are not high. Few support mechanisms have been put in place to alter the demographics of our councils. Few parties have policies or initiatives to actively help BME and young candidates. Some offer assistance to women — but going by Holyrood’s gender balance and the fact that only a third of people standing are women, they do not appear to have had the greatest impact so far.

There’s also a surprising lack of information on councillors’ gender, age and ethnicity. We must rely on third sector bodies to obtain the data, or the Improvement Service’s largely unreliable census (councillors were asked to respond to a survey in 2013 but only 26.2% did so). Perhaps this is indicative of the lack of emphasis being placed on the need for diversity in the ‘lower’ echelons of politics. Without proper, consistent monitoring, how are we supposed to measure improvement? This must change.

Still, the information that it available to us still provides a useful window into the world of local government.

Let’s start with the group best represented on councils of the three: women. Only a quarter of Scottish councillors are female, according to both the Improvement Service and Engender. Yet research has repeatedly suggested that it is women who are more likely to utilise the local services provided or controlled by local authorities: childcare, community centres, buses (fewer women than men drive) and other poverty prevention measures. So why shouldn’t more women be involved in decision making?

Gendered analysis of budgets and cuts repeatedly demonstrate that not enough consideration is given to how it impacts women. It is often this group hit hardest. Having more female representatives could change that.

The next under-represented group I want to focus on is young people. Less than 10% of councillors are under 40. Fewer still are under 30 (though exact figures on this are difficult to come by). But once again, young people are often the most common users of local services.

Even more obvious is that fact that local authorities in Scotland manage education budgets — it is always councils’ largest area of spend. Yet if decisions on how to use this funding are being made by people who have long since left the education system — even their children may have left it a long time ago — how do we know that decisions are being made in the best interest of our children and young people? Engagement workshops and sessions only go so far. We need more young people in charge of the purse strings.

And lastly, but by no means least, that brings me to BME people. According to analysis by CRER, only 1.4% of councillors are not white. That’s an appalling 17 out of 1,223. Even accounting for the fact that Scotland is a predominantly white country, this falls well below the 4% of people in Scotland who are Black or Minority Ethnic. In fact, BME communities remain one of the most under represented groups in all areas of UK politics, meaning structural racism often goes unchallenged.

Members of the BME community are also significantly more likely to be living in poverty and, like the previous two groups discussed, therefore more likely to require the support of local services. In addition, the Equality Act 2010 saw the creation of the Public Sector Equalities Duty which specifically called for all public authorities — including local authorities — to actively promote race equality. For a number of reasons, the Duty has never really been enforced, but increasing representation means councils are more likely to take heed of it.

Aside from women, young and BME people having a right to be represented at every level of politics, there is also the fact that decision making actually improves for society as a whole if it comes from a more diverse group.

So this May, I’m not asking you to abandon your political ideology just because a candidate is female, BME and/or young. But if you are stuck between a few options, please consider putting your ‘1’ next to the candidate from the under represented group. That way we can look forward to our councils being a little more reflective of reality — and a little less male, pale and stale.

Photo Credit: Aberdeenshire Council Facebook