Today is International Women’s Day and a chance for all of us to reflect on women’s place in society and public life. Much is said about women’s representation in Parliament and increasing the number of the number of women MPs, but there has generally been less attention paid to the number of women serving as councillors. Local government matters – councils run a multitude of services. From bins and potholes to social care and public health, councils make decisions that touch every part of our lives. Making sure that councillors as decision makers are representative of the communities they serve is more important than ever as local government faces further budget pressures whilst demand for public services rise and costs increase.
Data from the Fawcett Society found that following the 2021 local elections, only 34% of councillors in England are women. Amongst Labour councillors, 49% are women – far higher than the other major parties. Despite this, only 28% of Labour Council Leaders are women, showing there’s still a lot more to be done to achieve equality between men and women in leadership roles in local government – and only 14% of Tory council leaders are women.
Unfortunately this is not a simple question, otherwise we would have solved it already. One of the most important things that will really help is introducing parental leave for councillors – at present, there’s no legal entitlement for councillors in England to take parental leave, meaning that councillors who have a child don’t necessarily have any guarantee that they will get any support or leave from their council duties. In 2018, the LGA Labour Women’s Taskforce launched a model parental leave policy to help councils adopt a parental leave policy which gives councillors certainty and leave from their duties when they become a parent. The Fawcett Society estimates that 24% of councils now have a parental leave policy in place, which is a drastic increase from 2019 when our policy was just launched, but still isn’t good enough.
As there’s still no basis for this in legislation or even any formally issued guidance by the government, some councils are understandably hesitant to adopt a parental leave policy for fear of legal consequences. Despite lobbying by councillors from across the political spectrum, DHLUC still haven’t made any formal moves to introduce parental leave for councillors. This lobbying will continue, and hopefully soon this will become a reality for councillors and will remove a big barrier to a wider range of people becoming councillors.
This isn’t the only thing that needs to change to get more women elected as councillors and into leadership roles. There’s been a massive rise in abuse and harassment of politicians in the last few years, with councillors bearing a significant brunt of this. Many councillors have experienced death threats, physical violence, threats towards family and property and extensive social media abuse.
Many councillors, particularly women, are reporting that this toxic culture is putting them off remaining as councillors, and potential candidates are put off for the same reason. Several senior Labour councillors have written to Michael Gove about removing councillor addresses from the Register of Interests which would help councillors feel safer in their communities, as many incidences of abuse and harassment are centred around the home. These letters have gone unanswered, and whilst many in the Labour Party are sympathetic to this issue, it ultimately needs the government to take notice and act accordingly.
Being in Opposition can be frustrating, as any Labour MP or Labour councillor in Opposition will tell you. A lot of what we need to achieve to further equality between women and men in local government is down to the levers that government can pull, so we must hope that this current government suddenly decides to prioritise this issue or else wait until Labour is back in power.
But the Labour Party does have the power to change some things that will make local government a better environment for women, and indeed for all councillors. We should be doing all we can to select women and other underrepresented groups into winnable council seats, and once they’re elected, ensuring that the Labour Group and local campaigning environment is as welcoming as possible and reflective of the local community. This will create a more positive experience for new councillors, and one that should support the diverse needs of our communities – recognising that councillors have a life outside the council chamber with jobs and families which require attention too.
Every year on International Women’s Day there is always a lot said about the need to have more women in public life in general – whether that be as councillors, MPs or other senior figures. There is a lot that needs to be done to make this a reality, and it should be remembered this should be about making the culture of public life more appealing, not implying that women are unwilling to step into roles in public life. Over the next year, let’s all make sure that more is done to move towards equality not just in local government, but in public life as a whole.
This article is part of a series from female leaders in the Labour Party in the week of IWD. To keep up to date with all the articles sign up to our newsletter.