There are just four black Conservative councillors in the whole of Londonby Mercy Muroki and Philip Cowley / April 4, 2019 / Leave a comment
After every general election, there is a slew of commentary on the make-up of parliament—what age are MPs, how many are women, how many from ethnic minority backgrounds? All the main political parties claim to take this seriously and all have developed mechanisms to bolster candidate diversity. Yet about local government—both an important tier of government in its own right, and one which often acts as a gateway into national politics—very little is known.
Take a look at London, for example, as we did for an article just out in Political Quarterly. On the face of it, we find something very familiar, and hardly unexpected. The level of representation of London’s black and Asian communities has increased—in both absolute and relative terms—over the last 20 years, yet council chambers remain disproportionately white. And while the number of female councillors has also improved in recent years, to around 41 per cent in 2018, men similarly remain over-represented. We called the article “getting better, slowly,” but we might equally have gone for “still some way to go.”
This is all pretty much par for the course. What else would you expect? But things become more interesting once you start to dig into the data a little.
First, disaggregate “black and Asian” into its two separate categories. (For reasons we explain in the article, we don’t look in detail at other ethnic groups, not least because some of them—such as London’s Chinese population—are almost entirely absent from the local political scene).
Black Londoners certainly are under-represented. They make up 13.4 per cent of London’s population, yet only 7.8 per cent of councillors. In real terms, this means that London would need to see around 100 more black councillors to be representative of the wider population. Yet Asian Londoners are now proportionately represented, making up around 18.3 per cent of councillors and 18.5 per cent of the population. The use of broad categories, like BAME or “non-white,” can therefore hide as much as it illuminates.
Then look across London, spatially. There are massive differences between the levels of representation in each borough. The good news is that, for the most part, these differences are a result of the variations in the demographic make-up of London’s councils. The size of the black and Asian population in a borough correlates with the number of councillors at 0.88 (where 0.0 would indicate no relationship, and 1.0 would be a perfect positive relationship). In other words, generally speaking, where in London there are more Black and Asian people, there are more black and Asian councillors.
The less good news is that there are some real outliers. Relatively speaking, Enfield is the most under-representative council in London, underrepresenting its black population by around 14 percentage points, and its Asian population by just over 6 points. Lewisham follows close behind, despite having the largest black population of any London borough.
At the other end of the scale, the Asian population of Hounslow is overrepresented by a massive 24 per cent, yet black people are still underrepresented there by around 5 per cent. In Ealing and Tower Hamlets there is a similar story. In fact, Asians see better relative levels of representation—that is, even when you take into account population size—than black Londoners in two thirds of councils.
Third, look at the relationship between sex and race. It will come as no surprise to find that white men are over-represented, by a massive 15.2 points. But white women are now proportionately represented, making up just over 28 per cent of both the population and councils in London. In other words, the gender representational deficit in London is one of ethnic minority women.
Like white men, Asian men are also over-represented, making up 11.6 per cent of councils yet 9.4 per cent of the population. But Asian women are underrepresented, as are black women. Future efforts to improve representation for women might therefore need to be more targeted towards these groups of women.
And black men were the worst represented group of all, with 3 per cent of councillors being in this category despite black men making up over 6 per cent of the population.
Last, look at the role party plays in all of this. Labour has always had a better record of attracting and electing ethnic minorities than any of the other main parties. This has long been the case both for national and local office. In fact, black and Asian Londoners now make up a higher proportion of Labour councillors than they do of the population as a whole—36.6 per cent compared to 31.8.
In contrast, only 9.4 per cent of Conservative councillors are black or Asian—and worse yet, only 0.8 per cent of them are black. There are just four black Conservative councillors in the whole of London.
London is more ethnically diverse than ever before and for the first time ever, the two main parties’ candidates for the London mayoral elections both come from ethnic minority backgrounds. But the majority of local councils still have a way to go until they can be said to be representative of this new status quo—and we need to look at ethnic minority representation and in fact, representation in general—in a more nuanced way than we currently do. In practice, this means parties should take a more targeted approach when recruiting candidates.