To get better representation in local government, women first need to feel safe in elected roles

Two years ago, I wrote for Progressive Britain about the need to increase the number of women elected as councillors and how the Labour Party can achieve this. Despite the efforts of the Labour Party, the LGA Labour Group, Labour Women’s Network and many local parties, there’s been little progress on women’s representation in this time.

This isn’t for lack of trying – but rather a wider problem in politics and society. Women still bear the greatest responsibility for caring for children and other family members and are less likely to believe that they can stand for elected office or put themselves forward for leadership roles. In the past, this, coupled with more traditional attitudes to the role of women, has put women off from standing for elected office. Perversely, now attitudes are changing and more is being done to support women into elected office, the febrile nature of our political culture is putting off more and more good people – particularly women – from standing, due to the increased threats to their safety.

Abuse and harassment in politics is sadly nothing new. But over the past few years Brexit, Covid conspiracy theories and, most recently, the conflict in Israel and Gaza have led to a marked increase in abuse and harassment towards elected representatives. Events in the Commons have laid bare the threats that MPs are facing, but little attention is being given to the challenges that councillors are currently facing – particularly women councillors. Councillors are by very definition much closer to their communities which is positive – but also increases their vulnerability. When we have gatherings of councillors, we hear harrowing stories of them being subject to awful harassment such as stalking, threats to their (and their families’ safety) and racism, to name but a few examples. This is distressing for those on the receiving end of the abuse but also bad for democracy, as councillors ultimately don’t feel safe carrying out their role.

In January, the Jo Cox Foundation released the Civility Commission report, which makes a number of recommendations across the public sector and to political parties. Those with recommendations would be prudent to take note and implement them to prevent the current situation becoming even more untenable. One thing that is consistently raised by councillors is that having their home address on the council’s Register of Interests. Without direction from the government, many councils won’t remove home addresses from the Register of Interests, leaving situations where councillors and those they live with feel unsafe in their homes.  This understandably puts people off from standing or restanding – and those councillors who are women or from an ethnic minority are particularly under threat. Some councillors have had to get security systems installed in their homes because of the abuse and harassment they are receiving.

This obviously can’t go on. The government recently announced a £31 million package to provide extra support for security for elected representatives, including councillors, but it is tragic that this is needed when the money could be better spent on our crumbling public services.

So, what needs to be done? There’s a duty on us all as activists to challenge abuse and harassment when it happens in the Labour Party or within our Peer groups – this stops it from being normalised and acceptable and supports those at the receiving end of it. Being supportive and setting a good example goes a long way in creating a welcoming culture where a wide range of people feel they can be councillors – never underestimate what sticking up for someone means to them! Getting your Labour Group and council to pass a parental leave policy and to provide proper support for carers will send a welcome signal that your Group is somewhere everyone is welcome and really looking at how you go about selecting candidates to ensure they aren’t just more of the same will strengthen how your Labour Group and local party works.

If (as we all hope) a Labour Government is elected this year, then there’s plenty they can do to tackle abuse and harassment of councillors and make politics a more welcoming and accessible space. Giving stronger guidance to councils with a presumption that they will redact councillor home addresses from the public Register of Interests would be a good first step, as would introducing legislation that enables councils to hold hybrid meetings where appropriate. A wide range of work has been done such as the LGA’s Debate not Hate campaign and the Civility Commission report that will give plenty for a Labour government to do – something that the current government has been unwilling to engage with.

Ultimately, I hope that in the next couple of years we move towards a less hostile environment so we can write about the positive changes that are happening within politics and local government – because it is desperately needed.

 

To read Hannah’s piece for International Women’s Day 2022, see Labour Women, Leading Locally.