London’s political classes are now much more reflective of the city’s rich diversity, but there is still a way to go. Mark Smulian reports
When Margaret Hodge (Lab) asked for maternity leave in 1978 from her post as chair of Islington LBC’s housing committee the council leadership was thrown into confusion. No-one had made such a request before or knew how to react, she recalls.
“Eventually, I took six months off and when I returned they immediately sacked me, so some things have changed for the better,” says Ms Hodge, now MP for Barking and high-profile chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.
Public attitudes towards women, members of ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and of various sexual orientations being in positions of power have indeed changed for the better since diversity policies began to appear in the 1980s. But there is a long way to go, those most involved think.
In the eighties, diversity policies could be controversial and even regarded with some suspicion as a means of parties distributing safe seats to cultivate support from specific communities.
Ultimately though, increasing councillor diversity is not something any council can command - it depends on who joins the political parties and who they select as candidates.
One attempt to tackle diversity was the Councillors’ Commission, chaired by Dame Jane Roberts, then Labour leader of Camden LBC, which reported in 2008.
It made a raft of recommendations but Dame Jane says now: “I do not think much has changed. There has been a lack of political will to bring about change.”
However, Ben Page, director of market research firm Ipsos MORI, which among other things tracks public opinion, thinks things have improved considerably with respect to diversity.
“Public attitudes have changed for the better and opposition towards women in power and towards homosexuality are seen as out of date,” he says.
“The pre-1945 generation may have more traditional attitudes but those are fading.
“There is both a push and pull effect. Diversity policies helped with this but also flowed from changing attitudes. When local government took this up, it gave it official approval and it was then validated by legislation.”
Waltham Forest LBC Labour councillor Marie Pye, London Councils’ lead on equalities, has seen “little change in the number of women councillors over 30 years, but there has been a real change in black and minority ethnic councillor numbers.
“That is partly changes in attitudes and partly the way London’s population has changed but it is not just that.
“I think it’s partly about promoting the idea to people that they could become councillors. We have just got our first councillor from the Albanian community in Waltham Forest, and that’s great,” says Ms Pye.
Ms Hodge agrees: “We need to get away from the idea that there is an inexhaustible supply of middle aged men of greater talent than anyone else.”
She says she is proud of the way the Labour party has changed in Barking & Dagenham LBC, noting: “In 2006 when the BNP had 12 councillors there the Labour party was almost entirely white, but now the councillors we have really reflect the make-up of the borough.
“That took a lot of work to change the minds of those who were concerned with power rather than representation.”
Ms Pye feels one way to convince people they could be councillors is “showing them what is involved”.
“An awful lot of it is understanding what a councillor does, that it’s not all meetings in town halls and wearing robes, but that you are there to represent your community and it is not hugely arduous, though you will probably need to join a party to get elected.”
This approach has been followed by the Conservatives in Wandsworth LBC where leader Ravi Govindia (Con) says: “Ultimately this is an issue for the political parties and they have to do more to diversify candidates, but to do that you need more people from diverse backgrounds joining parties so perhaps it is chicken and egg.
“The Conservative party carries out recruitment drives; for example, we have been out in Queenstown ward, a place with a very diverse population and a lot of young people, and have found people there willing to become councillors.
“We run workshops where those interested in standing meet councillors and find out more about what is involved, but the main thing is that they have to show a commitment to the party.”
Cllr Govindia adds that London’s four-yearly all-out election cycle is unhelpful since “enthusiastic people can have to wait a long time before they get the chance to stand”.
London’s record on councillor diversity is a little better than the English average, according to the Local Government Association, with 63% of councillors being male, against 67.3% for England, with an average age for councillors of 56.5 years (60.2) and 84.3% describing themselves as white (96%).
Campaigners feel this still leaves a long way to go. Nan Sloan, director of the Centre for Women and Democracy, says: “Things have improved but there are still only about 30% of councillors who are female, and only 13.5% of leaders, so women are not taking the most senior strategic roles.
“The problem is that diversity creates a challenge to those who have power, and if other people want that power there isn’t an easy way to solve that.
“It would take someone who has power standing aside because they think a woman would be better in their job, and that is very rare.”
Andy Gregg, chief executive of north London-based campaign Race on the Agenda, says increasing diversity is not just virtuous in itself but leads to better policy decisions.
“If you are going to make policy at a local level that understands the nuance of communities, then you need representation from these communities,” he adds.
“I would not say that should be done in a formulaic way, so that an area with, say, a 20% Bengali population must have 20% Bengali councillors, but I would certainly say it would be better if more were drawn from that community.
“The evidence all shows that in any entity diversity gives you wider pool of experience and ideas to draw upon,” says Mr Gregg.
Ms Sloan agrees: “There is lots of evidence that you get better decisions, which is not some airy-fairy equalities issue, but one of mixed groups making better decisions because they are more representative of those they serve.”
Mr Page says that while “it’s difficult to prove that having the ‘right’ proportion of councillors for an area gives better decisions, diversity is instinctively the right thing to do”.
One area less often mentioned, and which has if anything got worse, is class diversity.
Dame Jane says: “We see younger councillors but there has been a reverse in economic backgrounds, it’s become very middle class and you get people standing as councillors because they want to become MPs.”
Ms Hodge blames the Blair government’s introduction of the cabinet and scrutiny system for shutting out those from poorer backgrounds from the most senior roles.
“I don’t think those reforms were helpful as it now means the cabinet is a full-time job, and who is going to give up a career for that when you might at any moment be thrown back out onto the jobs market?” she argues.
“That didn’t happen with committee chairs, but now there is no way for a councillor to progress up as they could through committees.”
For many involved at the sharp end of promoting and fostering diversity and inclusion over the past five decades, it may have felt - and probably sometimes still continues to feel - like a long, hard struggle.
But what is clear is that, just as London has become an increasingly polyglot, multicultural, international city in the past 50 years, so London’s political classes have become much better at representing, and reflecting, their capital city’s unique diversity.