Where are all the BME councillors?

Lester Holloway, Runneymede Trust Race Matters Blog
15 June, 2017

This article was published immediately after the General Election in June. It is still highly relevant.

Runnymede Communications Manager Lester Holloway, writing in a personal capacity, contrasted the rise in MPs with black and ethnic minority backgrounds to more than 50 with the picture in local politics. Ethnic minority councillors barely make up 4 per cent, while BME people make up 14 percent of the population. Council chambers remain stubbornly stuck in the past. Elected members are overwhelmingly white, male and retired.

Time for a radical change! What is Labour doing about it?

Now that the snap election has delivered results, albeit unexpected ones, political parties across our towns and cities will have already turned their attention to the local elections in May 2018.

Metropolitan and unitary authority elections to be held next year include the London boroughs, where half of Britain’s ethnic minorities live. But London’s diversity is not reflected in the town hall council chambers.

For example in Lambeth, visible ethnic minority councillors make up less than 20 percent of the elected members, despite the local population being 60 percent black and minority ethnic (BME). This picture is reflected in many other ethnically diverse boroughs.

It is much worse outside of London. Black and minority ethnic (BME) representation may be lacking in the capital, but it still provides the bulk of BME councillors nationwide.

In 2008, the proportion of ethnic minority councillors was 3.7 percent. The most recent survey puts the figure at just four percent. This compares to BME people making up 14 percent of the population. A huge gap that is getting bigger as demographics become more ethnically diverse.

Local government’s failure to embrace racial diversity is in stark contrast to the steady increase in BME MPs in parliament with each general election. In fact, there are a record number of MPs of colour (and women MPs) taking their seats in Westminster this week.

Yet council chambers remain stubbornly stuck in the past. Elected members are overwhelmingly white, male and retired.

In London, some inner-city councils have hardly any more BME councilors than they did in the radical 1980s, when Linda Bellos and the late Bernie Grant turned Lambeth and Haringey into socialist fortresses.

Thinktank IPPR recently called for Britain to adopt German-style quotas for women councillors. The reasoning was that only a third of councillors are women and there has been very little progress in the past 20 years. This is also the case for racial diversity; BME communities are twice as under-represented as women, with BME women suffering from sitting at the intersection underrepresented groups of course.

Aspiring BME politicians may be unlikely to embrace quotas but they do want local politics to get its act together. This is more urgent for parties that would be naturally more cautious of quotas.

BME representation in local government is overwhelmingly on the part of Labour councillors. The last survey found just 2.3 percent of Liberal Democrat and 1.5 percent of Conservative members were BME, all Green Party and UKIP councillors were white.

The gap between BME Tory representation in local and national government is particularly stark, with 18 MPs of colour following the 2017 General Election.

A common justification at the local level is that BME party activists are thin on the ground or not putting themselves forward. This is a poor excuse. Sit any group of councillors down and ask them to think hard about who they have met on their travels that would make a good councillor and they will almost certainly come up with a diverse set of names. The next stage is to send them out to persuade them to stand.

One cause of BME under-representation in town halls is turnover. Ethnic minorities are more likely to serve just one term. This has a negative impact not just on the overall numbers but also means that many BME councillors are not hanging around long enough to rise through the ranks.

White councillors are five times more likely to be Group Leader, and while 21 percent of white councillors make it to the executive or higher, just 14 percent of BME members reach those heights.

Indeed, the greatest predictor of reaching the cabinet or frontbench is not skills or professional background, but simply being an old white man.

It is easy to blame this on job and family demands of BME councillors. Yes, a higher proportion of BME people have young families and a much smaller proportion are retired. But there is another explanation. As a former councillor myself, I have come across many BME members who report feeling isolated and excluded. Stories of unfair treatment, bullying, and of casual racism at official meetings going unpunished, are surprisingly common.

One contributing factor is that BME members are less likely to have mentors because they were not networked-up with key local figures before being elected. With no-one to show you the ropes and guide you through the labyrinth of local politics, it is simply harder to get on and easier to fail.

Friendships and unofficial mentoring go a long way to helping a new councillor bed in and thrive. Without this, friction and even mutual suspicion can quickly arise when the camaraderie of electioneering gives way to the hard graft of town hall politics.

These are issues of political culture that quotas alone cannot solve, especially with race. As political parties select their council candidates for next spring they all need to raise their game to avoid local government falling even further behind Westminster. As well as recruitment, they should also give careful thought to retention. Not just superficially making BME councillors ‘welcome’, but giving them the sort of advice and guidance that others who are already plugged into local political networks take for granted.

Local government needs to go that extra mile to become more racially diverse because it lags so far behind society at present, and has seen so little progress over the decades.

Local government may have lost some of its prestige and power with centralisation, privatisation and endless austerity cuts, but it remains an important part of civic life and still delivers essential services.

Being a councillor can be an exciting and rewarding role. But there is a task to sell this to people in order to encourage skilled professionals, younger people and more BME citizens to become councillors. Local government needs them to refresh and reinvent itself at this watershed moment.

The fact that many council groups look like they are stuck in a 1950s’ time-warp is precisely because local parties are not reaching out or supporting from within. Let’s hope things start to change in May next year.

Lester Holloway is a communications professional writing in a personal capacity. He was previously a Labour and Lib Dem councillor. He tweets at @brolezholloway