Local government is not very diverse – no s*** Sherlock, you might say.
Pick a council at random, scroll through the page where they display their councillors’ photos and contact details and you’ll see what I mean – very white. Of course there are exceptions – in some London boroughs and other large cities, but even there all is not as it should be: black men are under represented, as are Asian women.
This news probably doesn’t come as too much of a shock to anyone. What was perhaps more revelatory to some from a recent report by Manchester University, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE), was that there has been no effort to track the numbers of people from ethnic minority backgrounds who are elected to councils.
The report, Ethnic Minority Representation in UK Local Government, conducted the first census of all sitting councillors in all four constitutive nations of the UK. It found that seven per cent of all sitting councillors are from ethnic minority backgrounds (there is an LGIU members briefing that looks at the findings of the report). Does this low number represent any kind of progress? Well who knows really, because the last figure (four per cent) was basically just a guess based on non-random samples.
Do we feel well represented by local government? Do we feel that our council understands us, listens to us, is interested in finding ways to provide the services that we need? These questions speak to the heart of how all communities and councils dovetail in order to ensure the wellbeing of everyone in a local area.
The under representation of ethnic minorities as councillors (and senior officers – but that’s a story for another day) is a serious and largely unaddressed problem for local government and political parties. This is not just a question of achieving a proportional representation in those areas of the country that have large ethnic minority populations. Local government across the board must acknowledge the fact that it has failed to evolve and develop instep with society and does not reflect our communities as they exist today.
Even for purely practical reasons local government would be better for addressing this – how can the exclusion of so many people, so much untapped talent, be good for any forward thinking organisation?
Selection processes, changing existing culture, zero tolerance for racism are some areas that local government and political parties could begin to look at or push harder. But whatever the action a crucial part of the process is ongoing monitoring of progress.
Central government never enacted Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, which obliges political parties to collect data on protected characteristics for political candidates. Why? It seems like the data equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears, and the problem is there whether you collect the numbers or not.
During the past few months the Covid-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the economic, health and race inequalities that run deep in to every part of this country. It’s been clear that many black, Asian and other minority ethnic communities have been more severely hit by the health and economic impacts of the pandemic than other sections of society. The reasons are likely to be many and nuanced but early discussion points to poverty, more overcrowded housing conditions, greater representation in key worker and public facing jobs, pre-existing health conditions.
The shape of the recovery is crucial. If the plans do not recognise and address the scale of existing inequalities then there is a real risk that the recovery will widen those injustices.
Local government is the branch of government at the heart of a place, closest to communities. The part of government that can make the inequality faced by so many black, Asian and other ethnic minority communities visible and make their voices part of the discussion and the recovery planning. At least it should be. Real engagement, real understanding and real change will only happen when the faces on those council website pages are the faces on our streets, in our parks, offices, shops, key worker roles – when they are the faces of all of us.