Last week, the local press reported on research from the Fawcett Society showing that West Berkshire Council had the second lowest percentage of female councillors in the whole of England, just 14% – that is six women out of a total of 42 councillors. Out of 333 local authorities in England, only 41 have 45% or more female councillors. I asked myself, why is this still the case, over 100 years since women have been able to be elected as councillors?
I’ve often asked female friends if they would consider being a councillor – as I used to be one myself. I saw it as a way of helping the local community, and had some wonderful experiences in my ten years on Newbury Town Council. I felt that I played a positive role improving the town; helping instigate new play equipment, footway lighting, floral displays and public art. I met all sorts of people as a result of public consultations and meetings. I was perplexed when friends didn’t share my enthusiasm – I can honestly say I never managed to persuade a single other woman to stand for election. I know committee meetings are not everyone’s cup of tea, but there is so much more to being a councillor than that.
I think the public perception of politicians is one of the biggest stumbling blocks, as recent events in Parliament have illustrated; they are often seen as selfish money-grabbing egoists. The vast majority of councillors in the country do not get paid a bean for their volunteer work in parish and town councils, but the public are not generally aware of this. District and County councillors are paid an allowance (about £7,000 a year at West Berkshire Council, and those with additional responsibilities are paid more. The Leader of the Council received just over £26,000 in 2020), but for most it certainly isn’t enough to live on. Arguably a living wage may encourage more candidates from under-represented groups to come forward. To properly fulfil the role of councillor in a larger council takes many hours, and often business is done during the working day, so those that have no flexibility to their working hours are at a big disadvantage. Men are more likely to run their own businesses and earn more than women, consequently they are more able to take time out of their working day whilst still being able to make ends meet. Working age female councillors are a rare breed. It is no surprise that few councillors are below retirement age – therefore not only are half the population (females) poorly represented, but young and working age people both male and female are also massively under-represented. I haven’t even mentioned ethnic minorities and disable people!
But back to women. Even in 2021 it is still a fact that women have the lion’s share of caring responsibilities; be it children, elderly parents or ill partners. I had to fight the opposition to bring in a carer’s allowance for councillors in the early noughties at Newbury Town Council. Committee meetings are still predominantly in the evenings – not ideal if you are a single parent for example, and 85% of all single parents are female, according to the ONS. Hopefully all councils now provide an allowance for councillors with caring responsibilities – but I wouldn’t bet on it.
So, we know women earn less and have greater caring responsibilities than men. When I ask my friends about being a councillor the response is usually ‘I’m too busy’ and I can’t really counter that. Even when retired, women are often caring for elderly parents or babysitting grandchildren. This may explain why you don’t often see a woman sitting fishing on a riverbank…
Going back to the bad behaviour of politicians – the House of Commons is the main source of the public’s awareness of this, though thanks to a few viral videos recently (Handforth Parish Council in January, and, just last week, Maldon District Council) we all now know that bad behaviour can happen in council meetings too. I believe this puts off many from having any involvement in politics, but women in particular are repulsed by this – why give up your precious spare time for that?
I have an interest in visiting parliaments and town halls when I travel abroad. I have been to the town halls in Copenhagen and Hamburg, the Bundestag and the European Parliament building in Brussels. The thing they all have in common is the semi-circular or fan-shaped layout of the seats in the debating chamber – in stark contrast to the oppositional benches we have in the UK. I believe that the European style is more conducive to consensus politics, and that the UK style promotes an adversarial politics of finger pointing and personal insults. After the bombing of the House of Commons chamber in the second world war, we had an opportunity to redesign the layout, but Churchill purposefully kept it the way it was because he preferred opposition politics to a more collaborative approach.
Whilst it would be a major expense to remodel our parliament building, I believe it would be a good idea to re-arrange the furniture in the West Berkshire Council chamber into a fan-shape. It would be interesting to see if this would modify the behaviour of certain confrontational individuals, and create a more harmonious setting where party members may find it easier to compromise, or at least see some benefit in each other’s opinions. I think women would be more inclined to enter the fray of local politics if the process was less about macho posturing and more about finding the best way to serve the local population.
Gillian has lived in Newbury for 35 years, was a Newbuty Town Councillor for 10 years and Mayor in 2006/7. She has volunteered for many local organisations and charities and her interests include politics, travel, local history and making things from clay.