Opinion: 20 years of going nowhere, Liberal Democrat gender balance in council elections

Twenty years of progress, followed by twenty years of stalling. That’s the overall picture of Liberal Democrat (and before that Alliance / Liberal Party) progress towards gender equality at local government elections, whether measured in terms of candidates or people elected.

Looking at local elections in England, a mere 20% of the Liberal Party’s candidates were female in 1973 and the figure was even lower, 18%, amongst those elected. By 1991 both figures had risen to 34%. Since then, however, the figures have bounced up and down around a long-term flat trend, with both hitting 30% in the latest figures for 2013.

When it comes to candidates, Labour’s picture is similar – progress in the 1970s and 1980s, followed by stalling since, although it is a better form of stalling as in some years Labour now has a higher female percentage than the Lib Dems. For the Tories the picture is similar, but worse – for the progress and stalling has then turned into decline in the last few years.

When it comes to the proportion of people elected who are female, Labour’s trend departs markedly from the Liberal Democrats. After a brief stalling, Labour then started seeing increases in the proportion of its elected councillors who are female, with such strong growth in the last five years that the party has gone from having the lowest proportion of female elected councillors among the three main partiesto the highest, now resting at just under 40%.

Local council elections - gender balance

Four things strike me about these figures, and the similar long-term patterns in Scotland and Wales:

  1. It’s worth stressing the point: gender balance amongst the party’s local government base is going nowhere. Although wider society has seen continuing trends towards gender equality, for the party and its predecessors it’s been no progress for 20 years. Society shows no signs of fixing the problem for the party.
  2. Is it a problem? With a majority of the population and a majority of the electorate being female, the question really is ‘do you think that we’re get the best individuals for the jobs when women make up over half the potential pool but under a third of the number of candidates?’ (And anyway, talking about the best person for the job misses the fact that we’re selecting teams, not just individuals.)
  3. Whatever the cause, it isn’t the party’s overall membership balance that is the cause, for the party is about 48% female. Slightly less than the population overall, but way higher than the proportions of local councillors and candidates.
  4. It is possible to bring about big changes in a small number of years, as Labour has shown. That doesn’t mean Labour’s measures are ones Liberal Democrats should be comfortable with, but it does mean that leaving the numbers stalled isn’t inevitable; it’s a matter of choice.

For my previous posts on the topic, some of which include data from outside England, see:

(I thought I’d written similar posts in 2011 and 2012 but seem to have mislaid them somewhere on the internet. If you are better at locating my words than I am then do let me know.)

Thank you once to Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher of The Elections Centre at the University of Plymouth and authors of British Electoral Facts 1832-2012 for providing the data used in this post.

* Mark Pack is Party President and is the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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  • Just getting in with the traditional first comment on such a post: “I’m a man and I don’t see a problem here at all”.

  • One reason why Labour has more councillors is because they are very active in the public sector and so
    a) they get paid time off;
    b) it is seen a positive career move and
    c) Union officials get active support.

    These factors are important to men, but probably even moreso to women.

    I haven’t seen any research to show that women are less supported to become candidates than men, indeed there is plenty of extra specialist support women get in the party to progress. However, unless we can solve the money issue, we may be pretty close to the norm in the current social and economic climate.

    Personally, I worry much more about the age profile of councillors, which is much more problematic, but also more difficult to analyse and so, sadly, doesn’t get as much attention.

  • Having said all that, almost my entire attention is focussed on getting more Lib Dems elected, totally irrespective of age, sex or any other criteria. But that is another story.

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Jul '13 - 12:18pm

    OK, so is the problem that there is a particular sort of image of what it means to be a “politician” that women find unattractive? I think this is part of it. If we address the imbalance by artificial means, we are solving the symptoms but not the underlying disease. That is, we are simply filling the places with those women who have attitudes which are more common amongst men, while doing nothing about those women – and men – who are put off by whatever it is that is putting off people (more women than men) from putting themselves forward.

    I have never been in a local party where there is any sort of competition to be a council candidate. Wherever I’ve been, it’s ALWAYS been a matter of twisting arms to get people to agree to stand.

  • I’d argue about your first point, Mark. certainly in the last ten years there has been a backlash against feminism because people held the incorrect assumption that all is aims had been achieved. This is only now starting to change.

    Having said that, I do think Matthew has some valid points. Having worked for the party for a couple of years now and seen how things work from the inside I am far less inclined to put myself through what candidates go through, and not only for financial reasons. Politics is set up for a certain type of person to succeed, and those people tend to be male.

  • Men will do anything to help women get on in politics unless it is at their expense.

    We have had decades of failed attempts to achieve gender balance and we’ve failed. Labour have moved much faster because they allowed all women shortlists.

    I am reluctantly driven to the conclusion that only quotas, zipping and all-women shortlists will ever get us anywhere near gender equality. We need to bite the bullet. Otherwise we will waste another generation of excellent women activists, who won’t become councillors, MPs or MEPs, or MSPs or AMs because the selection process we have does nothing to get women onto the real ballot paper.

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Jul '13 - 3:23pm


    because the selection process we have does nothing to get women onto the real ballot paper.

    Did you bother reading what I wrote? When it comes to councillors, we don’t have a selection process. I don’t know of any local party where so many people want to be candidates for councillor elections that there has to be a formal process to chose who stands.

  • mickft Unlike Matthew, I know at least one place where there have been regular ward selections, with anything up to 4 candidates, that is Exeter, where I have often been returning officer (no more, for the moment, I wouldn’t think they’ve taken an enormous political hit since 2010). Women, as far as I could tell did at least equally as well in selections. It is nothing to do with selection, as Matthew says. No-one wants to stand, but women marginally less than men. Mark, can you reanalyse your figures for what is going on – I suspect Antony is on to something. All paties tend to follow similar trends.

  • @David Evans: It’s certainly true that getting Lib Dems elected is better than the alternative! Given the proportion of female candidates is so much lower than amongst our membership, it’s worth thinking whether we’re missing out on potential excellent female candidates due to, for example, how we tend to go about asking or encouraging people to stand.

    @Jennie: Fair point. It’s not been one smooth continuous picture of progress by any means!

    @Antony: I think the issue is county council elections, perhaps because the meetings at those tend to be further away on average (as counties tend to be larger) and more likely to be during the day.

  • Antony -the troughs coincide with County Council elections – and there seem to be few women across all the parties. If I had to make a guess at why it would be that County Councils often require more travel to meetings and tend (IME) to have daytime meetings whereas districts have evening meetings

  • If we assume in the majority of local parties there are three types of candidates it would be interesting to know if there were different levels of female participation in each group:
    There are the people who want to get elected and will work a ward from scratch to achieve this;
    Once a councillor is elected then a second or third candidate may be needed and these people may have different skills from the first group (sometimes members of this group can be the first Lib Dem in a ward to get elected);
    There are paperless candidates who are often people who are known to those looking for candidates and often who have stood before. When the whole council is up for election this group can be a very large proportion of the local party. In my experience there is no preference for male or female candidates.

    If the problem is in the first group then the question becomes how can local parties be supported to change the type of person who is the first Lib Dem elected in a ward. In my experience there is very little support for the majority of local parties with most support going to MP and target Westminister seats and then to those areas where we are in control or likely to gain control (maybe even jointly).

    Therefore if the Party wished to change this situation it would have to allocate funds (over £100,000 a year) to employ people to achieve this support. Also it would need to change its culture from being concerned about winning to being more concerned with development.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 11th Jul '13 - 3:04pm

    Positive action appears to be a possible way forward if we are to achieve the gender balance that we profess to support, for leaving equality to ‘good will’ seems to mean that we just do as we have always done, and this limits the Party’s future opportunities of being representated by the ‘best’ candidates.

    Ruwan Udwerage-Perera
    English Party Diversity Champion
    Vice Chair – Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats

  • Simon McGrath 11th Jul '13 - 3:15pm

    @ R Uduwerage-Perera
    If only it wasnt for the clause in our constitution saying we are against discrimination on grounds of sex ……

  • I agree with Jennie. It’s incredibly hard to be a candidate – to put up with angry people throwing leaflets back in your face, people leaving anonymous angry phone calls and querying how a mother who works could possibly have time to be a councillor. It’s not a Lib Dem problem especially but a society one. Sometimes I feel the public should get what it seems to expect – thick skinned males. Perhaps we haven’t got enough of these already in politics?

  • In R Uduwerage-Perera’s local party they may have contested candidate selection elections where some form of positive action such as grouping seats and having half of those selected from each grouping being female and half male might work but he doesn’t seem to understand that for the majority of local parties there are no contested selection elections and it can become a struggle just to find enough candidates no matter which sex they are.

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