Small signs of progress in local government gender balance for Lib Dems

The proportion of Liberal Democrat local council candidates candidates who are female showed an improvement in this year’s council elections in England, but not enough of an improvement to change the flat long-term trend.

The broader context is that, once allowing for the fluctuations year by year depending on which seats are up for election*, the numbers have been flat for 25 years. The current figures are a little worse than around the turn of the century but up with most of the 1990s.

When it comes to gender balance amongst those elected, this year saw a small symbolic achievement, with the proportion of Lib Dem councillors elected who were female beating that of Labour (and the Tories). Until 2005 this was the norm, but stopped being so in the face of Labour’s own decisive action to improve its diversity, which looks to have lost momentum in the last two years.

The margin by which the Lib Dems secured the best figures was slim and the figure of 38.4% female was still a long way short of 50%.

That said, a clear piece of good news is that the sharp reduction in Liberal Democrat councillor numbers over the last Parliament does not seem to have knocked gender diversity (in the way that has happened in Parliament). Moreover, there is possibly the start of an upward trend in the gender figures amongst those elected. Though if gender balance amongst candidates overall does not start rising, it is doubtful how far there is room for the elected figure to improve on its own.

Female local election candidates in England

Gender balance - Lib Dem council candidates

Female councillors elected in England

Gender balance - Lib Dem councillors elected

To update what I’ve said about these figures before, 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 stuck a long way short of the balance in the population. Although wider society has seen continuing trends towards gender equality, for the party and its predecessors the years of steady progress have been over for a quarter of a century. 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 Lib Dem party is about 46% 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.

Lib Dem gender balance in previous years

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.)

* I don’t think anyone has done detailed research into why some local government vacancies are more likely to result in female candidates than others, but most likely there are two explanations for this. First, if there is more than one vacancy in a ward at the same time – e.g. if all three seats in a multi-member ward are up for election in the same year – then local parties are more worried about standing three male candidates than if it is three separate vacancies in three different wards. Second, the working patterns of some councils – how far away the council offices are, when meetings are held, etc. – is likely to make it harder for people with greater family caring responsibilities, and that tends to hinder women more than men.

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.

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