Where are the women in May's local election?

27 Apr 2017

Jess Blair highlights the problem of diversity ahead of next week’s council elections.

Since the Prime Minister’s unexpected announcement of a General Election last week there’s been little time to talk of anything else. Our 24 hour news cycle is now dominated by images of May, Corbyn et al traveling the country and trying to persuade us voters that they are the right choice to lead after June 8th, while Facebook and Twitter feeds have thrown up relentless updates on the latest polls, memes and opinion pieces reflecting on the latest events on the campaign trail.

With so much #GE2017 discussion you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Wales heads to the polls in just a week’s time. Next Thursday all 22 of our local authorities will be up for grabs, with 3438 candidates hoping to get the backing of local voters. It’s a critical election and one that parties will be keeping a particularly close eye on this year.

It’s undeniable that the public services that those successfully elected will be responsible for are vital. Our councillors are the closest elected representatives that we have, in charge of the things that really do affect our everyday lives.

Given this, it is shocking that this local election is likely to be a huge step back for diversity. ERS Cymru and Chwarae Teg have recently looked at the candidates standing for election and found that just 29.8% of them are female. If you live in Blaenau Gwent or Ynys Môn then your candidates are over 80% male.

Lowest number of female candidates

Council

%

Blaenau Gwent

17.2

Ynys Môn

17.5

Merthyr

20.3

Pembrokeshire

21.1

Gwynedd

24.4

 

Whatsmore, a third (33 per cent) of all council wards across Wales have no female candidates at all.

This is a pretty bad situation for us to be in in 2017, and saddening considering that Wales at once point was leading in terms of women’s representation in politics. At one point after the National Assembly was established a majority of its AMs and the Welsh Cabinet were women.

Yet, following last year’s Assembly elections we are now in the position where just over 41% of AMs are female. While this isn’t the best example to be setting, 41% looks quite the step up from our local councils. After next Thursday it wouldn’t be unrealistic to anticipate 75% of our local councillors being male.

At the last census just over 51% of the population were women. When politicians fail to effectively reflect the communities they stand for it’s a problem. How can 22 local authorities dominated by men, likely white and middle aged men at that, properly represent the diverse communities we have across Wales?

It’s clear that we need to do something about this problem. While Welsh councils will be dominated by one demographic over the next term, there’s no reason why this has to continue if we do something about it before 2021.

Parties and local authorities must do more to encourage women to stand, and to ensure that women are selected as candidates. We also need to critically examine why women are less likely to stand to be councillors than men and adapt to remove those barriers.

Chwarae Teg and others have talked a lot about the potential role of temporary quotas and all women shortlists. Currently the parties vary massively in terms of the number of women they are selecting as candidates:

Parties in order of female candidates (Highest to lowest)

Party

% of female candidates

Labour

35.3å

Liberal Democrats

34.3

Conservatives

30.5

Plaid

29.2

Green Party

28.9

Independents

23.4

Other

20.2

UKIP

18.5

 

Countries such as Ireland have also taken a more radical approach. The 2016 General Election there was the first under new rules where parties would lose portions of their state funding should they not reach gender quotas. Now, this isn’t something that can be replicated in Wales due to differences in powers and the way party funding works, but the idea of penalising those who don’t make efforts to improve diversity - and rewarding those who do -  would certainly be a radical new approach. In Ireland this measure worked; with a 40% increase in the number of female candidates elected.

Whatever approach we do take it’s clear that poor female representation isn’t an issue that will be fixed by will alone. We need to have an open and honest conversation about why the barriers to women’s representation still exist and ultimately put measures in place to ensure that our local authorities start to reflect those communities that they represent.  

Jess Blair is Director of ERS Cymru. The research discussed in this piece was undertaken jointly by Chwarae Teg and ERS Cymru.

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