'I come from a council estate, have 39 tattoos and a nose ring - and that's why I make a good councillor': call for greater diversity among members of Lancashire County Council
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The opposition Labour group on the authority called for County Hall to commit to “improving diversity in democracy”, including by encouraging people from sections of society that are currently under-represented in local government - like women, ethnic minority communities and the young - to stand for election.
However, the motion making the demand was rejected by the ruling Conservative group, which argued that the make-up of the council chamber was largely in the hands of voters and political parties - not the county council as an institution in itself. During a debate on the issue, Tory members also said that the authority was doing all that it had within its limited power to promote diversity amongst its 84 members.
County Cllr Samara Barnes, the Labour representative for Rossendale West, said that prior to her first election, she did not think “people like me” could become politicians.
“I was a single mum. I lived on council estate, I’ve got a broad accent…39 tattoos, a nose ring and I pretty much only ever wear Doc Martens. But those are exactly the reasons why it was a good thing I got into politics.
“I represent a group of people who didn't think they had the right to have their voices heard - people who have things done to them and not with them But now my residents see someone who is like them and feel comfortable to ask for help - they feel like politics is accessible and don't just think it’s for posh older men,” County Cllr Barnes said.
Bringing the motion, Skerton member Jean Parr said that anybody looking at those occupying benches in the county council chamber would “ask questions” - particularly about the number of female and ethnic minority county councillors.
“In politics, as in life, experience is just as important as knowledge,” County Cllr Parr cautioned, adding that diversity amongst decision-makers was key to making better policies.
However, Preston Rural’s Sue Whittam, a Conservative, said that was “impossible for a group of 84 people to be a perfect reflection of the communities we all serve”.
“These decisions about the selection of candidates are made by political groups and others outside of this organisation,” she added.
County Cllr Whittam also told the meeting that County Hall already does “significant work to encourage diverse groups of people to stand for election” - including by ensuring councillors receive support if they are subject to harassment after taking up their seats and by providing training on equalities legislation and tailored help for disabled members.
However, the meeting heard particular concerns about how welcoming local government is to women - especially with meetings always taking place in person, rather than there being a hybrid option, and also continuing throughout school holidays.
There are currently 54 male members of Lancashire County Council - 64 percent of the total number of councillors. Within the political groups, 37 out of 48 Tory members are men, whereas men make up less than half of the Labour group - 15 out of 32.
The only two Liberal Democrat members are male and the sole Green Party representative is female.
Lancaster East’s Labour representative Lizzi Collinge said that when she was elected in 2016, she was repeatedly mistaken for a council worker rather than someone who had won a seat.
“It's very telling that a professional woman in her mid-30s was not seen as a councillor,” she said.
Her Labour colleague for Lancaster South, Erica Lewis, said that while official council meetings were required by law to be in person - after a brief suspension of those rules at the height of the pandemic - there were many unofficial gatherings for which more flexible arrangements could be made to accommodate those with responsibilities at home.
She also banged the drum for encouraging a broader age range amongst county councillors, telling the meeting that politics was geared towards allowing “people who come from places of power and privilege to dominate”.
County Cllr Lewis said that the last time council boundaries were changed in Lancaster, one parish council successfully argued that a high student population should be removed from one area and included in another, because it conflicted with the overarching demographics of the ward. That, she said, smacked of double standards.
“In most quarters of the country, we are very happy for young people to be represented by people who are far older than them, but we have this assumption in our heads that young people are dangerous and risky,” she commented. Nationally, according to the Local Government Association, the average of a councillor last year was 60. There is no corresponding average figure available for Lancashire County Council members.
However, Wyre Rural Central's Matthew Salter, a Tory, said that people from different backgrounds were capable - and obliged - to represent everybody in their patch.
“It’s up to the people of Lancashire to choose their representatives, who - regardless of our own characteristics - each have a duty to speak for our residents of whatever sex, ethnic background, creed or political persuasion.
“It's important that those from less represented demographics are aware of the opportunities that exist to stand for election and of the contributions that they could make to our communities - and this work already takes place.
“However, there is a great difference between providing information and ensuring those who want to stand are confident in doing so, and demanding that the outcome of an election confirms to some pre-set calculations of a certain [number] of people with some or other immutable characteristics.
“We can’t force people to stand, we can't force [party] associations to adopt who we decree [that they should] and we can’t say who the people of Lancashire should have as their representatives - that’s not how democracy works,” county Cllr Salter stressed.
His Conservative colleague, Whitworth and Bacup’s Scott Smith, added that as “a gay man who was proudly brought up by a single mum in Dundee and who was elected at the age of 27…it’s news to me that politics is for posh old men.
The motion for a commitment to make Lancashire County Council “a diverse council” was rejected by 41 votes to 32.
‘OTHER THINGS PUT PEOPLE OFF BEING COUNCILLORS’
Diversity is not the only issue deterring some people from standing for election, the meeting heard.
Green Party member Gina Dowding said that the residents she represents are often amazed - and appalled - at how long it can take for county councillors to make things happen.
“I have been trying for 10 years to get a speed hump renewed that is really dangerous. All the [council] officers agree [that] it’s really bad. What do I have to do?
“We need to ensure that people believe that if they get elected to this chamber, they are going to make a difference.
“Why would people aspire to be a councillor if what they are trying to do for their communities doesn't happen?” asked County Cllr Dowding, who represents Lancaster Central.
Meanwhile, Penwortham West member David Howarth - a Liberal Democrat - said that residents and potential candidates were also often disillusioned with the first-past-the-post electoral system, which meant that the number of seats won by a party did not reflect the number of votes received.
Calling for a shift to proportional representation, he said: “Fifty percent of the people I represent didn't vote for me. So we have Conservatives…Labour members [and] Greens who I will try to represent to the best of my ability - but I’m not their choice.
“Within the county…we still have rotten boroughs. You can put a blue, red or otherwise-[coloured] rosette on a donkey [in some areas] and it will get elected.
“County Cllr [Graham Gooch] has a division [South Ribble West] where I’m sure [nobody] but a Conservative would not get elected, but there are people who would rather be represented by somebody of a different [political] colour.”
WOULD YOU CONSIDER STANDING FOR ELECTION?
The next Lancashire County Council elections are in May 2025. You can find out more about what the role entials and how to become a candidate here.