Women in the Chamber: Barriers to Female Representation in Local Politics

The stark fact that fewer than 20% of MPs are women is a testament to the barriers which women still face in entering national politics. Even if all the major parties nominated women in 50% of their vacant and winnable seats until parity was reached, the rate of change would be slow. The year would be 2037 before equality of men and women was reached in the Parliamentary Labour Party; 2046 in the Liberal Democrats and 2278 in the Conservative Party. 

This is not to deny the progress of recent years. In 1945, there were just twenty-four female MPs; we now have a total of 126 out of 646. The major leap in this period took place in 1997, when Labour instituted its radical affirmative action initiative. The doubling in the number of female MPs from 60 in 1992 to 120 in 1997 was almost entirely due to the increase in female MPs in the Labour Party. Ninety-seven of the Labour Party’s 355 MPs are women. In the Liberal Democrat Party this figure is ten out of sixty-three, and in the Conservative Party it is seventeen out of 196.

Upon being elected leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron said: “We will change the way we look. Nine out of ten Conservative MPs are white men. We need to change the scandalous under-representation of women in the Conservative Party and we will do that.”

The other parties share his concern. Labour already practices affirmative action and Menzies Campbell used his first speech as Liberal Democrat Leader to pledge to bring in more female candidates. 

Any attempt to increase the representation of women in Parliament is laudable. However, national equality measures and targets do not always recognise the interrelation between the different tiers of government. Local politics is an important pathway to involvement in national and devolved government, and this is particularly true for women. It is therefore crucial that any steps to improve the representation of women in politics do not ignore the local level. According to research from the Equal Opportunities Commission, 68% of both male and female parliamentary candidates said that previous experience in local politics was important in encouraging them to stand. Of all elected MPs in 2001, 55.7% had local government experience.

In general, women are better represented at local council level than they are in Parliament, but the figures are still woefully low. Following the 2006 local elections, 28% of councillors in the UK are female. Party breakdowns for the 2006 elections are not yet available but previously, women accounted for 35% of Liberal Democrat councillors; 29% of Labour councillors and 27% of Conservative councillors.10 Women were also proportionately less likely than men to achieve the position of Leader or Deputy Leader. In the devolved administrations, the picture is more balanced. 36% of Members of the Scottish Parliament, 50% of Welsh Assembly members and 38% of London Assembly members are women. The Welsh Assembly has a higher proportion of female members than any national parliament in the world.

It seems self-evident that if attempts could be made to increase representation at local level, this would widen the pool of female candidates wishing to progress to political office on the national stage. But the relationship is not one-way. Just as local politics affects the composition of national and devolved government, the culture and practice of national politics also impacts upon local government. Not only are the procedures of national government emulated in the localities, especially in the wake of local government modernisation, which was based on the cabinet model, but also the image of national politics affects women’s perceptions of politics in general and often impacts upon their decision of whether or not to stand for local office.

Having said this, steps taken to improve women’s representation in local councils need to be tailored to the specific problems at this level, and not simply emulate initiatives aimed at improving the number of women in parliamentary politics.