The statistics around diversity among local councillors are unlikely to surprise many people: as in so many parts of public life and private business, those in positions of power and influence do not reflect the rich diversity of our communities.
Indeed, when the Local Government Association (LGA) asked The Young Foundation to explore how the Be a Councillor campaign could reach more diverse cohorts, just before the local government elections in May 2021, only one-third of local councillors were women, the average age was 59, and only 4 per cent came from minority ethnic backgrounds. Although progress is being made, particularly on bringing down the average age, the latest elections did little to change the overall picture.
To better understand how we can accelerate change and increase the diversity of those who stand for election, The Young Foundation engaged with 74 people from across England, all of whom are part of under-represented groups, and who, between them, reflect the intersectional nature of identity. We focused on those of working age and the majority were women. Within that we included people from a range of ethnic backgrounds and different sexual orientations, with disabilities and caring responsibilities, and from lower-income households.
Climbing the ladder
Being a councillor is unlikely to ever have mass appeal and nor does it need to. It does, however, need to have broad appeal so those who are interested in the role believe it is and can be right for them, regardless of their background.
We can think about this in terms of a ladder from awareness to action. We need high levels of awareness about the fundamental basics of what being a councillor involves, along with a broadly positive perception so as not to deter people at the first rung.
Unless this awareness reaches into all groups in society, it will continue to constrain the representativeness of those who go on to explore the role in more detail and consider it, and those who ultimately decide to take action and stand for election.
Our conversations with people make the nature of the challenge clear:
- Understanding of the role of a local councillor is limited: in particular, the extent to which councillors can directly make decisions and direct funding on issues of strategic importance to a local community are less well recognised. Yet, the ability to have a positive impact on their local community is one of the main motivators that would encourage people to consider the role.
- Perceptions of local councillors and local government are also mixed – with many people conflating issues of national and local government, or influenced by a broader lack of trust in institutions.
Many are also deterred from considering the role by misperceptions, negative perceptions, or gaps in knowledge. These include:
- A belief that local government is not the quickest or most effective route to achieving change for their local community.
- A concern that the demands of the role are not compatible with ‘normal’ life, for example around family, work, or caring responsibilities, and/or that the costs of standing for election are unaffordable.
- Imposter syndrome – driven by a general lack of self-confidence, peoples’ fears that they lack the required skills due to age or experience or length of local residency, or because they are simply aware they do not fit the ‘stereotypical’ profile of a local councillor.
- Worries about the scrutiny that public figures are under and a fear of abuse or trolling on social media. What support is available to councillors on an ongoing basis?
Addressing the challenges
One of the most important ways to address these challenges is by ‘closing the gap’ between those we want to engage in local politics and those who currently work as local councillors. In order to consider the role, people told us they want to hear real stories of achievements, success and local impact. They also want to hear more about what a real ‘day in the life’ of a councillor looks like, and to hear those stories through channels that speak to them directly and specifically.
And for those who are genuinely considering the role, there is a real desire for the contacts and connections who can help them understand what it truly entails: opportunities for shadowing, buddies and mentors – particularly with those who are from similar backgrounds or who have overcome similar hurdles, and more detailed information on the ‘job description’ and ‘terms and conditions’.
This is only the start. Please take a moment to think about what you can do next to help create the change we all want to see.