Working Together to Close the Democratic Deficit

Throughout this week we are discussing diversity in local government.  This discussion follows a request from Welsh Ministers to PPIW to provide expert advice on increasing diversity in local government.  On Tuesday, Dame Jane Roberts gave her opinion on the topic and yesterday Diverse Cymru discussed their work in relation to increasing representation of Black, Minority, Ethnic (BME) people.  Today, in the final of our series, Cllr Sara Jones of Monmouthshire County Council discusses her experience of working full time, raising a young family and undertaking her work as a Councillor for the community of Llanover.  She also shares her expert advice on how to address some of the barriers that hinder diversity within local government and how elected representatives of all levels have a role in empowering more people to believe that they can make a positive difference in our democratic systems.  

With budgets being squeezed to unprecedented levels and with the prospect of fundamental reform of the current landscape, the nature of local government as we know is changing beyond recognition.  Out of these challenges there is both the threat and opportunity that presents itself in terms of diversity amongst our elected members at a local level.

The role of local government affects us all.  Education, social care, waste, highways, leisure services and libraries to name but a few are some of the services that many of us will access on a daily basis. It is essential, therefore, that our elected representatives are representative of the diverse communities that they serve to ensure that decision making takes account of all.  It is essential that local democracy consists of representatives with wide life experience, who have different skills and attributes and reflect the diversity of society to enable decisions to be reflective.

At present the situation is dire.  Of the current elected members 27% are women, the average age is over 60, only one of the twenty two local authority leaders is a woman and 1% of councillors are from non-white backgrounds.

Is it any wonder that the electorate are becoming increasingly disenfranchised and frustrated with our political institutions? Only 39% of the population turned out at the last local elections in 2013, a fall on 2004 and 2008.  Perhaps the lack of representation, the lack of people like you and I making decisions on our behalf, is one of the key factors in the current apathy levels.

Myself, and many of my peers, are passionate about this agenda. I want to see progression, I want change – I want my young daughter to grow up feeling like no matter what her age or gender that she can make a difference.  It is one of the reasons I entered politics, in addition to being passionate about where I live and wanting to make it a better place for all, I was, and still am, frustrated by the lack of voice for my generation.

There are a number of fantastic initiatives which are aiming to make a difference to representation in local government, and public life more generally.  We’ve seen the Expert Panel report, chaired by the inspirational Laura McAllister, make a number of recommendations that I hope sow the seeds of change.  The Women Making a Difference and the Women in Public Life projects are two schemes that are working to improve gender representation and which are highlighting the issues in a proactive and progressive manner.

Ultimately we need to ensure the structures of our democratic institutions allow for under-represented groups, and those of working age who have valuable skills and experiences, to engage and become part of the process.  Timings of meetings, remote attendance, training and development and family absence all have a role to play in making the role of a Councillor as accessible as possible.  To ensure that we have the right environment we may need new legislation that goes beyond the 2012 Local Government Measure to take a bold approach in setting out how this landscape could look.

Support is vital, whether that be from the group leader, group members or other councillors, it is critical to ensuring that we retain members who may be juggling a number of commitments such as work or caring responsibilities. As my council’s appointed Diversity Champion I am working with the Welsh Government’s Diversity Group to look at initiatives such as mentoring schemes to support interested individuals in their path to becoming an elected member.

Clearly there is a role for the Welsh Government, political parties and current elected members at every level of democracy in ensuring that we make a real difference to the depressing statistics from the 2012 local government elections.

We also need to look at our next generation and empower them to feel that becoming an elected member could be a viable option for them, whatever their background.  I recently spoke at the Welsh Government’s ‘Girls Making a Difference’ conference which was aimed at inspiring young women age 16-18 to think about ‘non-traditional’ careers in areas such as local government or in the Science, Technology, Engineering or Maths sectors.  The girls I spoke to were extremely ambitious, intelligent and had a fantastic grasp of current affairs; yet the majority did not see politics as a viable option for them or one they would have any idea on how to enter.  We need to work with youth councils and schools to get the message out; you can make a difference, whether that be as an elected representative or in terms of engaging with the democratic process.

Local government reform could provide the opportunity to take control of the current democratic deficit and adopt forward thinking proposals to ensure that we have diversity amongst our elected members.  Equally it poses a real risk, particularly for those members and potential members of working age. If numbers are cut and ward sizes increased is it really going to be a viable option, on the current allowance, to enable those who work alongside their council role to continue to do so?

We need to see real leadership now from those in positions to make a difference, we need to see recommendations implemented and reform of structures used to support the diversity. I will continue to encourage other women and under-represented groups to get involved in local government.  There is a role for all of us in working to dispel the current image of local government and make it reflective of our communities; working together we can close the democratic deficit that is threatening our communities and support them in their ability to engage in local politics.

Sara was elected onto Monmouthshire County Council in May 2012, she represents the Llanover ward and currently chairs the Economy and Development Select Committee. Sara is also the Director of the Welsh Retail Consortium. She graduated from Cardiff University with a BSc (Econ) degree in Politics and a MSc (Econ) in European Public Policy. From a farming background, Sara has lived in Monmouthshire all of her life and currently lives with her partner on their farm in Usk. She has a three year old daughter.