Gender equality… how becoming a councillor has changed my perspective

I am a feminist.

I have called myself that since the mid-2000s and by that term I simply mean that men and women deserve equality. To be valued equally and to have equal opportunity to make the most of our lives.

I have worked for the election of female parliamentarians.  I was part of the team that secured Sharon Bowles’ re-election and Catherine Bearder’s election for the first time in the 2009 European Elections. Five years later, I was Catherine Bearder’s running mate (Sharon having decided not to stand again) and I chaired the regional campaign.  We raised about £250,000 and honed a sharp regional message around jobs and the economy. I quit my job and worked 9 months unpaid for the campaign. It was successful and we retained one seat in the European Parliament.

I worked for the election of Sharon and Catherine not because they were women, but because they were candidates I believed in – based on what I saw them say and do – such as Sharon’s unique understanding of the 2008 crash and what needed to be done to regulate banks.  I would have believed in them no more or no less if they had been men.  To me, the gender of any individual was unimportant in the context of the Liberal Democrat MEPs’ Group.  From 1999-2014 roughly equal numbers of men and women were elected as Lib Dem MEPs.

I have been, accurately, regarded as a sceptic of some measures intended to promote gender balance regarding Lib Dem Candidates for the UK Parliament.  As a Member of the Federal Executive I voted against the FE submitting the motion which led to All-Women Shortlists.  I still believe AWS are in fact more harmful than helpful to the prospects of women candidates.  Moreover, my experience has been that Liberal Democrat party members are not biased against selecting women. I think most local parties want a female candidate if possible.

In May 2017 I was elected to Kent County Council. In my division, we increased the Lib Dem vote form 4% to 43%, moving from fourth to first place. Kent is the largest county council and has a budget of £2.2bn. We spend 8 times per capita what that EU spends. Kent’s GDP is about 36bn and my view is we deserve devolution comparable to Wales, at least. I serve as Opposition Economic Development Spokesman and balanced with the joy of being married last month and my day job as a criminal barrister, I consider myself busy but extremely lucky.

At County Hall, the inequality between men and women has been a big shock to me, compared to the roughly gender balanced world I had seen looking at the European Parliament.

In Kent, like the rest of the country, 51% of the population are female, however:

  1. Only 22 out of 81 members of the current council are female (27%)
  2. The council’s over-powerful Cabinet has 9 men and 1 woman (10%)
  3. The Chairs of the influential Cabinet Committees are 5 men and 1 woman (17%)
  4. In total “special responsibility allowances” paid to men are £519,013 per year and to women only £158,579.
  5. And this disparity in now new.  Since 1979, 28 men have been Chairman (sic) of the Council and only 3 women.
  6. In the same period (1979-present) 5 men have been Leader of the Council and only 2 women.

All the parties have a role to fix the overall balance of councillors when we are next elected in 2021.

But the even grosser imbalance in men and women holding senior positions could be fixed tomorrow by Paul Carter, Conservative Leader of the Council who fails to act.

But he leads a Group who include people who sniggered when the suicide of a bullied transgender teenager was once mentioned in the Chamber. That is the sort of opponents that Liberal Democrats are dealing with in Kent.

It is blindingly obvious to me that our council’s deep-seated gender imbalance has a real impact on policy outcomes.  In the last few months the Conservatives have brought forward proposals to cut Socially Necessary Buses (by definition those that are needed for access to schools, health, groceries and work) and breast-feeding support. These are things that hit women hardest.  I am sure a more gender balanced Cabinet (even a Conservative one) would have better ideas.


* Antony Hook was #2 on the South East European list in 2014, is the English Party's representative on the Federal Executive and produces this sites EU Referendum Roundup.

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  • Phil Beesley 8th Feb '18 - 1:53pm

    I hope you enjoy your time as County Councillor, Antony. It is “public service” and you deserve moments of fulfilment from your work.

    I appreciate party political sensitivities and your sex as a man. Are there any cross-party support groups which you think might help colleagues in all parties? What do women tell you? Are there other men in local parties to whom women speak more openly?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 8th Feb '18 - 2:04pm

    I am confused by this.

    Where have you changed your mind.

    You open saying you have been a feminist since Hetty was a child and give us good reasons why this is a stance necessary from your perspective and experience in council.

    What changed when how ???

    You say you were are and continue to not be keen on all women lists.

    What changed when how…

  • Ruth Bright 8th Feb '18 - 4:10pm

    Good point. Many of the mets aren’t too bad but many counties have a shocking disparity – look at Hampshire for instance. Sadly, we can’t blame all these disparities on the Tories.

    Thoroughly agree that most local parties are not really biased against women candidates they are just rubbish at supporting them once they are there. Just look at the attrition rates of our female PPCs (oh hang though, nobody bothers actually analysing attrition rates!).

    Many congratulations to you both on your marriage!

  • I think it’s easy to think that the gender of candidates or elected members isn’t particularly important when you are working in an environment that is fairly balanced, and there isn’t a great deal of overt sexism. But when you find yourself in an environment described at Kent CC, then the benefits come into focus. It’s not so much that only women can think of certain things, but that men who spend most of their time in a very male environment will think differently to men who spend most of their time with men and women, and people with disabilities and from a BAME background etc.

    One of the big differences between County Council elections and the EU ones is of course First Past the Post, which makes it much more likely that successful male incumbents will continue to be put forward at subsequent elections, and even if they do retire, local parties might be tempted to find someone who is similar.

  • Rita Giannini 9th Feb '18 - 11:02am

    Welcome to reality! I had a similar experience in Italy in the early 70s, when I realised that as a girl I had to work 10 times harder and shout very loud to be heard in school assemblies, where the boys always took the plum jobs and left us to our “feminist” issues.
    Nothing has changed much…..

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