According to a ‘national census of local authority councillors’ in 2010, local councillors are predominantly men (70%), older (60 years is the average age) and white (96%). And they love it. 67 per cent of councillors intend to stand for re-election at the end of their term in office and 83 per cent would recommend taking on the role to others.
Before jumping to conclusions, I want to applaud these people for their work. Anybody is better than nobody, surely.
So hats off to the retired fellas. These stalwarts of civic society have time on their hands and are committed to supporting their communities. They don’t get paid very much (and in the case of most town councils like Ledbury’s get nothing) and apparently spend half the working week on council business. Without them, the country would probably grind to a full stop. So no personal disrespect is intended here. Don't get me wrong, their contribution is fully appreciated.
The trouble is that this small respectable fraction of society who are running things at local level is not remotely representative of the country as a whole. Where is the gender balance? Where are the young(er) people? The ethnic minorities and other minority groups? What we have is a monocultural group who make policy, organise services, chair meetings, and behave exactly as you would expect them to do. Councils are run like old boys clubs because they are old boys clubs.
Meanwhile, is it a surprise that democratic engagement is at an all time low? Turnouts in elections are tragically poor - that’s if an election takes place at all. Town councils like Ledbury’s routinely struggle to marshall enough candidates to fill the eighteen councillor vacancies, meaning seats are filled by uncontested election or by co-option. Few people can remember when there was last a full town council election. Democracy is not really working.
There are many hurdles to candidates standing for election, some practical, some cultural.
Time and money are major barriers if you are an ordinary working person, with a family to care for. There is the expense of paying baby-sitters or carers when out at meetings and the cost of producing election publicity which can run to hundreds of pounds. Disabled people also face an often impossible struggle to canvass effectively at election time.
There is also another even more deadly deterrent to which I can attest. The stuff of council meetings consists of hours upon hours of committees, hedged in by formal procedure and precedent. Apart from the odd moment of blokey banter, the result is bone dry, joyless discussions. Everything is done by the book. That’s code for small groups of allies having stitched up things beforehand.
Council business is a world away from the real world of ordinary people’s lives, or even the way people do ordinary business. The old boys have their ways of doing things and nobody’s going to get in the way.
Is it comfortable to be sitting with a peer group with whom you have nothing in common? I don’t think so. When we bemoan the lack of younger, female, diverse councillor candidates and blame it on apathy, laziness or selfishness, we are wrong. These people are staying away in their droves because they feel like outsiders.
They are outsiders.