It may be a quiet summer in Westminster, but in Wales, three parties – Labour, Plaid Cymru, and the Conservatives – are holding leadership elections. While a lot of focus has been on the direction of the Welsh Assembly, and particularly its lack of diversity, local government must not go ignored.
If you live in Wales, there is a reasonable chance that your council will be led by a cabinet made up of white, middle-aged men. In fact, if you live in the Vale of Glamorgan or Blaenau Gwent your cabinet will be made up entirely of them.
This startling fact illustrates the exact problem with local government in Wales: like elsewhere in the UK its demographics do not match the people it serves.
While our communities are diverse in age, ethnicity, gender, ability and financial background, the councils that represents these communities are largely homogenous, filled with the stereotypical councillor from the 1980s or 90s. While other political institutions are moving on – the Welsh Assembly broke records in 2003 for being the first parliament in the world to achieve 50:50 gender parity – often local government feels old-fashioned.
Only three of Wales’ 22 local authority cabinets get anywhere near gender parity, with Swansea, Newport and Caerphilly all having over 44% women. Across Wales just 28% of councillors are women.
Likewise, one in three council wards had no female candidates at the last set of local elections in 2017. But beyond gender, we also see major issues with the age, ethnicity and career backgrounds of our councillors.
The good news is things are slowly starting to change. After the last elections the number of women leading local authorities in Wales doubled from two to four. Yet this alone does not solve a problem that is ingrained in the political process.
At the Electoral Reform Society Cymru, we recently published an extensive analysis of the state of play for diversity here. ‘New Voices: How Welsh politics can begin to reflect Wales’ looked of diversity across our political institutions.
The findings did not paint a rosy picture, from abuse of councillors and assembly members, to institutions that fail to work for modern families.
But from it we made a series of recommendations for local government in Wales. First among these is introducing a quota for each party at local government elections to ensure at least 45% of candidates are women.
Measures should also be put in place to encourage a broader range of candidates from ethnic minorities, different ages and those with disabilities. These measures should include ways to monitor the development of this.
As part of this, each party should ask candidates to fill out an equalities monitoring form upon selection, and every party should make the headline figures public in a standard format to allow parties’ progress to be compared fairly. Each local authority should then publish a complete report of their makeup after each election.
Council leaders should be held to account by the Welsh government if they fail to select councillors who are diverse for their leadership teams.
The Welsh government should also commission a review into councillor pay. Instead of it being paid as a part time role it would be a full time one, thus eliminating one barrier for a lot of potential councillors.
These recommendations are likely to have caused panic in council chambers across Wales. The introduction of quotas and measures to hold parties to account are certainly a fundamental change in the way local politics usually works. But without bold ideas, nothing will change.
Jess Blair, director, ERS Cymru