Local government should welcome Gordon Brown’s private bills proposal

Phil Swann

Streamlined access to local legislation must be available to help struggling councils to improve rather than rewarding those that have already done so, writes a PhD candidate in central-local government relations at INLOGOV and former director of Shared Intelligence.

In 1926 Winston Churchill, then chancellor of the exchequer, successfully opposed a private bill promoted by Bristol Corporation to establish a municipal bank in order to stop “all kinds of incompetent town councils”, particularly “socialistic” ones, from running banks. He did so despite the fact that the bill was supported by his Conservative colleague and former mayor of Birmingham Neville Chamberlain, who argued that Birmingham’s municipal bank had encouraged thrift and home ownership.

It is interesting to reflect on this dispute (not the last between these two political Titans!) in the context of the move by Gordon Brown’s Commission on the Future of the UK to promote the use of private bills by local councils. Raising the prospect of “the great cities of England” exerting similar powers to the Scottish and Welsh governments, the commission recommends a new, streamlined process enabling councils to initiate local legislation in parliament. This, the commission argues, would give councils an ability to secure the powers they need and to have a direct relationship with Parliament.

Evading centralising tendencies

It is undoubtedly the case, as the commission argues, that private legislation provided a vehicle for innovation in Victorian local government in the face of the social, economic and physical impacts of the industrial revolution. 

The genesis of public health lies in local legislation as does the creation of public utilities to provide gas, electricity and public transport. It was the ability of local corporations to promote private legislation that fuelled Joseph Chamberlain’s ambition to turn Birmingham Corporation into “a real local parliament”. Private acts were also used by enterprising councils to evade the centralising tendencies of successive governments in the second half of the 19th century.

It is also the case, however, that by the inter-war period private legislation had become a feature of the tensions in central-local government relations rather than necessarily being a solution to them. The resources and ambition required to draft and promote private legislation reinforced a growing divide between “advanced” or “progressive” councils on the one hand and “backward” or “penny-pinching” councils on the other hand. This reinforced differences between the major cities and smaller towns and rural areas. The widespread use of private legislation also contributed to the ad hoc and complex structures and powers of Victorian local government.

Significantly these trends were reflected in the justification for increasing central government intervention in local politics. In the 19th century there was a shift in ministerial focus from corruption to efficiency and action to bring “backward” councils up to the standard of the “progressive”. The first half of the 20th century saw a financially driven move to rein in the most innovative councils and drive improvement in the poorly performing ones. The dispute between Churchill and Chamberlain over the Bristol bank bill is an example of this.

Clause acts and adoptive acts

Despite these warning notes from history, the ambition of the Brown commission to enable local leaders to have access to a streamlined process to initiate local legislation should be welcomed. Many of the problems that emerged when private legislation was a common feature of local government could be overcome if it was explicitly seen as a way of testing new legislative powers prior to wider adoption – genuine pioneering.

Two other legislative devices deployed in the Victorian period could help to secure this approach if they were refreshed alongside a revival of local legislation. The first device is a clauses act, the prime example being the Town Improvement Clauses Act 1847. It brought together the provisions most commonly inserted in and effectively deployed through local legislation. Clauses acts, each of which would relate to a particular service area or initiative, would both streamline the legislative process and avoid unhelpful adhockery.

The second device, which takes this a step further, is the adoptive act. This is a piece of legislation which has been through the parliamentary process but which comes into effect only when it is adopted by individual local authorities. Acts of this type could make powers that have been successfully adopted by one authority available to be adopted by others without requiring local drafting or taking up parliamentary time.

Earned autonomy?

One other issue which requires attention is whether there should be a link between an ability to initiate local legislation and a council’s perceived performance. A sustained thread running through central-local government relations since the 1830s is the view that that councils should not benefit from new powers or responsibilities until they have met certain conditions or achieved a certain standard.

Joseph Chamberlain, who made extensive use of private legislation in Birmingham, took a different view. In 1877 he argued that “whatever the defects” of a council “I defy you to make a better one for the place except by gradually increasing its functions and responsibilities and so raising its tone.” No earned autonomy for Chamberlain!

If the increased use of local legislation is to help achieve the ambition set out by Brown and his commissioners, it is essential that streamlined access to local legislation is available to help struggling councils to improve rather than as a reward for having done so.

This article first appeared in the Local Government Chronicle on 13th December 2022.

Phil Swann is researching a PhD on central-local government relations at INLOGOV

Voter ID – in theory, practice and mirrors

Picture credit: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/why-the-governments-mandatory-voter-id-plans-are-a-terrible-idea/

Chris Game

“ID cards for polls are nothing more than suppression of voters” – D Butler. I’d forgotten precisely when and where I first read this pronouncement – May 2021 in The Times, as it turned out – shortly after the Government’s Elections Bill, now Act, was published. But I certainly remembered it.

Partly the phrasing, as personally I’d have gone for “nothing less than”, if I was hoping to galvanise readers into outraged protest. The seriously striking bit, though, was obviously the author.

Since first becoming fascinated by elections and electoral studies – thanks initially to Prof Richard Rose at the Univ of Manchester, then the late Prof Tony King at Essex – there has only ever been one D Butler in that file of my academic consciousness. Populariser of the Greekish word ‘psephology’ for the study of elections, and original authority figure in the BBC’s General Elections coverage: Nuffield College, Oxford’s Sir David Butler, who died earlier this month, aged 98.    

I knew him – distantly, but sufficiently to know he’d never have uttered anything resembling that strongly opinionated opening sentence – and, of course, ’twas not he. Rather, as I almost immediately realised, it was Dawn Butler: recent candidate for Deputy Labour Party Leader and, it so happens, MP for the London Brent constituency in which I first voted – shortly before she was born.

All of which might have excused a quickish blog return to the contentious Voter ID issue – within weeks of its last coverage – even if it hadn’t once more been prominently in the news this past fortnight, with Parliament finally getting its first full sight of the Government’s Voter Identification Regulations and the Electoral Reform Society leading the call for a parliamentary inquiry into its implementation.

The Elections Act requires voters, from next May, to produce photo ID at UK Parliamentary and most English local elections. And now, a mere six months or so later, we – and the local election officials required to implement them – finally have the Government’s list of acceptable forms of ID and proposed guidelines governing initially next May’s council elections: Coronation permitting, in most English councils – though not Birmingham, to save you checking.

The guidelines run to just the 344 pages, taking effect probably in January. Leaving already pressured election officials with minimal time (and as yet undetailed costs, beyond a ‘ballpark’ £180 million per decade) to process and issue electoral identity documents for those who gradually discover they don’t have acceptable forms of photo ID. Plus the near certainty that at least some would-be, and quite likely upset, voters will be turned away at their polling stations – which could add to the fun for the small army of volunteer poll workers.

At which point I should indicate my personal viewpoint. Instinctively – and certainly predating Birmingham’s own 2004 embarrassment of six Labour councillors getting elected through what was judicially described as a “massive, systematic and organised” postal voting fraud campaign – I’ve long broadly supported, in principle, stronger election integrity rules in general and photo voter ID specifically.

And I have recounted in these columns the reactions of some of my overseas students to the frankly casual ID confirmation procedures they’ve observed when accompanying me to the polling station. Their surprise at the staff’s indifference to whether I’ve brought my poll card identification; and almost shock as I ‘helpfully’ point on the register to what I claim is my name and address.

So why my support in principle for photographic ID – as well as nowadays that of a substantial majority of voters themselves and the conditional backing of the independent Electoral Commission?  Simples!  Elections are the engines of our democratic system. They should be seen by all as important, and that perceived importance is diminished by not having visibly more robust voter identification procedures – like virtually all other ‘democratic’ nations.

On the Crime Prevention Research Center’s database of Europe’s nearly 50 such countries, “only the United Kingdom” does not require government-issued photo voter ID to vote in national elections.

Correction!  Not the UK, just GB. Northern Ireland introduced voter ID nearly 20 years ago, and now has numerous forms of acceptable photographic ID – including, as well as passports and driving licences, a free Electoral Identity Card, plus senior, disabled and blind persons’ ‘SmartPasses’.

Since when, the Electoral Commission has found that, far from prompting polling day protest riots, voters’ confidence that elections are well-run has steadily increased to at least match the levels in other UK regions[1]. The demonstrable message has been not that we elsewhere in the UK are uniquely virtuous and trustworthy – though even Ministers concede that fraud levels are minimal, if not invariably seen as such. Rather, it’s that for us – and successive Governments – voting has been seen as less big a deal than, say, collecting a parcel at a post office.

Until now, that is, following a decade of quite dramatic change in the voting behaviour of particularly our 18 to 24-year-olds. Their turnouts are invariably lower than the average, but still high enough to hurt. In the 2010 General Election these mostly fledgling voters split equally across the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems, roughly 30% for each. By 2019, almost overlooked in the Conservatives’ overwhelming win, it was Labour 52%, Conservatives 28%, Lib Dems 11%.

That’s what evidently prompted the rush – not ‘personation’ or fraud, which for polling station voting are acknowledged as negligible. Rather, a possible early General Election campaign in which the Conservatives don’t start way ahead of the field. It also explains why the apparently generous range of 21 acceptable forms of ID is clearly weighted towards the better paid and over-60s. Older Person’s Bus Pass, Oyster 60+ card, Freedom Pass (66+), Scottish National Entitlement Card (60+), etc. – all welcome. Those particularly applicable to younger people, like Student ID cards or Railcards, remain “unacceptable”, as in the original legislation.

Yes, as in Northern Ireland, free ‘Voter Authority Certificates’ will be available – including online – and a public awareness campaign will remind you and your selfie to apply in time.  And no, none of this remotely approaches the legalised voter suppression we saw in some of this November’s American state elections. But – to coin a dreadful cliché – it’s from the same partisan playbook.

As are the £1.3 million-worth of 40,000 mirrors and privacy screens – one of each per polling station – that desperately cash-strapped councils must provide to check on would-be voters with religious face coverings. But they may well prove worth a blog of their own sometime before next May.

_______________________

A slightly publisher-edited version of this blog appeared in The Birmingham Post, 17th November – https://www.pressreader.com/uk/birmingham-post/20221117/textview


[1] Examples from the Electoral Commission’s ‘Winter Tracker’, Jan/Feb 2022:

   “Elections are affected by fraud/corruption?”  Total agree: 37%; W Midlands 37%; NI 30%.

Those “not confident that elections are well run: Some people have difficulties registering to vote”:                                          
Total agree: 20%; W Midlands 18%; NI 10%.

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

Voter ID gets Code Red

Picture credit: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/why-the-governments-mandatory-voter-id-plans-are-a-terrible-idea/

Jason Lowther & Chris Game

‘Code Red’, for anyone even approaching the generation of this blog’s more senescent author, has to cue the memorable final Tom Cruise/Jack Nicholson courtroom scene in Aaron Sorkin’s film, A Few Good Men. Indeed, said author has actually adapted and used it previously in these very columns:

Lieut. Kaffee (Cruise): “Did you order the Code Red?”  Col. Jessup (Nicholson): “YOU’RE GODDAMNED RIGHT I DID!!!”

In the film, ‘Code Red’ is a term used for any extra-judicial punishment or action taken against US marines for the purposes of humiliation or worse. Its function is, essentially, to deal with issues that can’t be solved using the normal legal framework.

In substantial contrast, the UK Government’s Code Red, though hardly a regular feature of our media’s political reporting, is at the very core of our modern-day governmental system. It is a (arguably the) key instrument of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), the Government’s centre of expertise for infrastructure and major projects, reporting to the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury.

Formed in 2016, the IPA’s intended function is to increase government efficiency and save public money by monitoring and ‘scoring’ the viability of its literally hundreds of infrastructure and major projects … and does so with an effectiveness that has some Ministers in the present Government viewing it as more of a PI(the)A.  

This already substantial introduction does have a local government-relevant point – promise!  And it is no blog’s function to deliver lecturettes, which in this instance are both available and well illustrated, from the Institute for Government and the IPA itself in its very recent 2022 Annual Report.

What follow, therefore, are a few shortish paragraphs outlining the IPA’s work, and two graphics from that 2022 Report worth, if not the proverbial thousand words, certainly a good many. We then focus on the issue of voter ID in England, reporting the government’s own assessment on the risks involved, and conclude that Government has still not yet shown how voter ID will operate in England without adversely affecting certain minority and disadvantaged groups.

The focus of the IPA’s work is the Government Major Projects Portfolio (GMPP), comprising this year 235 projects with a total Whole Life Cost of £678bn and estimated “monetised benefits” of £726bn, delivered by 18 departments and their arm’s-length bodies.

The projects are divided functionally into four categories, biggest-spending being Infrastructure & Construction (70 projects: £339 bill. whole life cost; £356 bill. “monetised benefits”) – high investment projects, including improving the UK’s energy, environment, transport, telecoms, sewage and water systems, and constructing new public buildings. Dominated financially, and in the IPA’s ‘unfeasible’ delivery confidence rankings, by the Dept for Transport’s HS2 (£72 – 98 billion) and Crossrail (£19 billion+) projects.

Transformation and service delivery covers projects changing ways of working to improve the relationship between government and the UK people, and harnessing new technology. Example: Vaccines Task Force.

Military Capability ispretty self-explanatory. Example: the Future Combat Air System – clever, mid-2030s stuff like uncrewed aircraft and advanced data systems.

ICT projects enable the “transition from old legacy systems to new digital solutions” to equip government departments for the future. Example: Emergency Services Mobile Communications.

Now to the interesting bit: the actual ‘confidence rankings’, or in the above cases of HS2 and Crossrail ‘no confidence rankings’. The official term is Delivery Confidence Assessments (DCAs): judgements of the likelihood of a project delivering its objectives to time and cost.

In essence, it’s a basic traffic light system. Green represents high likelihood of successful delivery of the project on time, budget and quality; amber: successful delivery feasible, but significant issues already exist, requiring management attention; and ‘Code Red’: unachievable, not a cat in hell’s chance; major issues everywhere, with project definition, schedule, budget, benefits – all at this stage apparently irresolvable.

Given the variables involved, it sounds more than a touch crude, and two additional ratings were added: amber/green – successful delivery probable, if given constant attention; and amber/red – successful delivery doubtful, major risks apparent in numerous key areas, urgent action needed.

Usefully added, it seemed, as unqualified amber regularly took between 40% and 50% of ratings (see Fig.7 below). But no, looked at another way, the “average project rating worsened from Amber/Green in 2013 to Amber in 2020” (p.16). It obviously couldn’t possibly be the quality of the proposed projects, so it had to be the assessment system, which accordingly for the 2022 assessments was changed.

But oops! The number of red assessments nearly quadrupled, almost equalling the previous four years’ red totals between them – but that’s OK, because the average project rating, we are assured, “has improved over the past two years”, though it’s not entirely transparent in the second flow chart.

Which brings us back to Code Reds.  Unlock Democracy, the democratic reform campaign group – and also the Daily Mirror – reported last week that “the Government’s own rating system has given the Elections Bill implementation a code red, which is defined as successful delivery of the project appear[ing] to be unachievable.”  Followed by the Association of Electoral Administrators announcing that it “no longer believes it is possible to successfully introduce Voter ID in May 2023.”

The Government’s “Electoral Integrity Programme (EIP)” has been red rated in the IPA’s annual report (see page 58).  The report summarises the Programme as ‘implementing changes arising from the Elections Bill. The Elections Bill makes provision about the administration and conduct of elections, including provision to strengthen the integrity of the electoral process. Reforms will cover: overseas electors; voting and candidacy rights of EU citizens; the designation of a strategy and policy statement for the Electoral Commission; the membership of the Speaker’s Committee; the Electoral Commission’s functions in relation to criminal proceedings; financial information to be provided by a political party on applying for registration; preventing a person being registered as a political party and being a recognised non-party campaigner at the same time; regulation of expenditure for political purposes; disqualification of offenders for holding elective offices; information to be included in electronic campaigning material’.

DLUHC’s commentary on this result noted the deteriorating assessment and added: ‘The IPA Gate 0 Review of February 2022 concluded that the programme Delivery Confidence Assessment is rated Red and that the programme needs to address key risks related to the suitability of the structure, approach and governance given its complexity and delivery focus, suitability of its minimum viable and digital products, and its lack of contingency to deliver against immovable deadlines’.

Reassuringly, the department felt that ‘the programme is addressing these points’.   Meanwhile, the estimated ‘whole life costs’ of the programme jumped from just under £120m to over £145m.

Unlock Democracy’s Tom Brake has reportedly written to Levelling Up SoS Greg Clark saying ‘It would be highly risky to attempt the first roll out of photo voter ID for the largest election in the UK, without having tested it on lower turnout elections beforehand’.  This echoes Jason Lowther’s comment on this blog almost a year ago that ‘The Government has not yet shown how voter ID will operate in England without adversely affecting certain minority and disadvantaged groups.  Until issues such as costs and access are fully addressed, it needs to proceed with caution’.

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

Jason Lowther is the Director of INLOGOV. His research focuses on public service reform and the use of “evidence” by public agencies.  Previously he worked with West Midlands Combined Authority, led Birmingham City Council’s corporate strategy function, worked for the Audit Commission as national value for money lead, for HSBC in credit and risk management, and for the Metropolitan Police as an internal management consultant. He tweets as @jasonlowther

Why and how do municipalities merge? A view from the cognitive perspective

[Photo: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/mental-virus-flipside-covid-pandemic-dr-abha-bhartia/%5D

Dr. Veronika Vakulenko

Among all public sector reforms initiatives, those appearing on the municipal level are the most tangible. This is because in modern democracies citizens can observe and (if willing to) trace changes in, for example, city planning, local infrastructure, education and many other spheres. Let’s be honest, everyone likes to visit a clean park, modern library, drive perfect roads or celebrate an opening of a new school. Meaning that local governments need to use financial recourses on creating a comfortable place for all to live in. However, it becomes rather common that local governments are not able to balance their budgets, due to a higher per capita spending, lower public service provision, or limited infrastructural capacity, which is the case particularly for smaller rural areas.

Seeking to improve local financial condition, many countries worldwide launched local government reforms, which still remain on the top of agenda among academia and practitioners. Pursuing mainly the objective to enhance local financial efficiency and quality of local public services, the reforms can vary from contractual inter-municipal cooperation to mergers or amalgamations. Mergers are the most drastic reforms as they require alterations of territorial boundaries, changes in administrative responsibilities and routines, and adjustment of financial management practices, all of which affects significantly the lives of citizens.

Several European countries, e.g., Finland, Switzerland, Ukraine, selected to implement voluntary mergers, allowing local governments to celebrate the freedom in deciding whether to initiate the territorial reform. While some municipalities recognized merger’s benefits (i.e., improvement local governments’ economic condition and quality of local public service delivery), others resisted merger. In this situation, it becomes interesting to approach municipal amalgamations from a dynamic perspective to understand behaviour and interactions between different actors, which can result in diverging reform outcomes.

In our recent study published in open access at Local Government Studies, we use an interdisciplinary concept of cognitive style, to explore the psychological aspect of mergers. By mobilizing cognitive literature, we could take a closer look at local actors’ behaviour, to argue that a merger is not a simple ‘marriage of convenience’ of local actors to increase their economic efficiency. Rather, it is a complex cognitive process, which requires local actors’ mental work in taking decisions and creating (or not) a new merged municipality. Thus, a final decision “to merge or not to merge” depends not only on financial benefits, but also on the way local actors perceive and process information about financial incentives and how they operationalize their decisions.

In a story of two neighbouring local governments in Ukraine studied during 2015-2019, we approached two local political leaders, who were drivers of changes on the local level. By studying very carefully their behaviour and actions, we found that their initial perceptions of merging were completely the opposite. While the first one was viewing this as an opportunity and was able to convincingly explain the need and future benefits of this change, as well as introducing new practices to engage local citizens. Despite several other local actors were supporting this initiative, the second leader was acting in a discouraging way and always emphasized risks for their community, which in the end resulted in collective inaction.  To summarize, new interdisciplinary approaches can be used to better understand the success stories or failures of municipal mergers. Cognitive theory in public administration has a significant potential in this field as well as implications for practice. As our case showed, better mapping the sceptics and addressing perceptions of local leaders before initiating voluntary mergers could facilitate better results from territorial reforms.

Dr. Veronika Vakulenko is an Associate Professor at Nord University Business School, Norway. Their research interests include interdisciplinary public sector accounting research; budgeting and financial management in local governments; national and supra-national public sector audit; reforms particularly in the context of developing countries.

Women in (West Midlands) Governance: A patchy metamorphosis

Chris Game

Yes, I did blog really rather recently on the topic of ‘Women in local and national governance’; and yes, I did conclude it by pledging to “retire gracefully from this particular field of research”.

But that was before I found myself fruitlessly upending my flat for anything conceivably useful to the Ukrainian refugees for whom one of my ward councillors was commendably collecting. Finding virtually nothing I could honourably offer, it was cash to the Disasters Emergency Committee, who assured me the UK Government would double my donation.

However, among the dust-covered treasures I’d totally forgotten, and spared the Ukrainians, was my 1975 Municipal Year Book (MYB) – a hefty, royal blue tome of 1,400-plus extremely closely printed pages, taking up over three inches of shelving.

myb

In pre-computer decades, when I joined INLOGOV, it was the proverbial local government bible – the 1975 MYB listing all 564 of the UK’s so-called principal local authorities plus, individually, their 26,467 councillors and further thousands of principal officers.

Several years later a thoughtful colleague, Ray Puffitt, bequeathed me his signed personal copy, possibly in exchange for my not pressing him to lecture to my undergraduate students.

Thoughtful because 1974/75 was, of course, the year of large-scale local government restructuring – or, in MYB-ese, ‘re-organization’. There were now far fewer councils and councillors, but these were the ‘new’ and therefore more relevant ones – which explains how I acquired my edition, though obviously not why it wasn’t binned decades ago.

Anyway, having discovered this 1975 stash of raw research data, I thought I’d share with you (and Birmingham Post readers) how much statistically women’s presence and visibility in our West Midlands local governments have changed in the past nearly half-century.

My earlier blog concluded by noting how Paulette Hamilton’s recent by-election victory for Labour in the Birmingham Erdington by-election had taken the proportion of women MPs over 35% for the first time. Moreover, that she and the six other women by-election winners since 2019 had – another first – made the Commons more gender-representative than our elected local governments, whose UK-wide proportion of women councillors has seemingly become stuck in the low 34%s.

Internationally, both percentages would get us, just, into the top quarter of the respective rankings. In educational lingo, though, it would be a “disappointing, could surely do better”.

If the Parliaments of Cuba, Mexico, New Zealand, Iceland and all Scandinavia can have more than 45% of elected women, why can’t we – or, more precisely, why doesn’t our huge Conservative Party majority comprise even a quarter? Similarly, if local government in countries as diverse as Bolivia, Tunisia, Iceland, Uganda, Namibia and Mexico can attract at least 45% of women elected members, why can we barely manage one in three?

At least, though, the picture has changed, or improved, hugely in the past half-century, which is what the rest of this blog is about – focusing on the metropolitan West Midlands.

I hadn’t moved to Birmingham in 1974/75, but I reckon that even without research I could probably have named the incumbent West Midlands’ women MPs – because, though few, they were all exceptional and established national reputations.

One, indeed, would have me as an Edgbaston constituent for the latter part of her elective parliamentary career: Jill (later Dame Jill) Knight, MP from 1966 to 1997.

The other three were all Labour: in West Bromwich another Dame-in-Waiting, Betty Boothroyd (1973-2000), latterly Speaker of the Commons. In Coventry West was Audrey Wise, and in Wolverhampton NE Renée Short. A formidable quartet.

Their successors are, necessarily, impressive too, and the reason I couldn’t immediately name them all is not just my ageing memory, but that there’s a full dozen of them. Eight Labour – including all three of Coventry’s – and four Conservatives out of West Midlands’ 28, or 43%.

Yardley’s Jess Phillips is, I’m guessing, probably best known, and she is one of just two of Labour’s eight who aren’t from minority ethnic backgrounds. Overall, another massive change from the mid-70s.

What about councillors?  Would the MYB’s council listings actually identify women members, and, if so, how?  Fortunately, they all risked the accusations of chauvinism and did – though in differing ways.

Birmingham, for example, gave first names – of all women members, while initialising the men. Then, as now, it was a Labour-dominated Council, 21 (17%) of whose 126 Members were women, including two Fredas, two Marys, and an exotic-sounding Carmen from Coleshill Road, B16. Oh yes, and a future Leader of the Council, Birmingham Lord Mayor, and wife of a Professor John Stewart.

bcccllrs

The other councils preferred marital status: almost always Mrs, with the very occasional Miss. Across the seven West Midlands councils Labour members outnumbered Conservatives by two to one, which was broadly reflected in women’s representation, with comfortably Tory Solihull managing just one woman out of 51 members.

However, the gender blend on Labour-run Coventry and Walsall Councils wasn’t that much better – four women on councils of well over 50, and one can only imagine how, on occasion, they must have been treated.

And no point whatever seeking empathy from senior women officers – because quite simply there weren’t any. Sorry, not strictly true. Of the 101 listed Principal Officers in the seven WM Councils, Miss H Clark, Wolverhampton’s Housing Manager, was the sole woman.

It’s here that the culture has changed most dramatically. Today, try counting the number of women in the senior managements of the seven West Midlands metropolitan councils, and the very first name you’d encounter would be Birmingham City Council Chief Executive: Deborah Cadman OBE – heading a 13-strong team of service Directors, including four more women.

Remarkably, though, that 38% female senior management puts Birmingham at the foot of this particular league table, which is headed by Dudley and Solihull with 75% and 67% women senior managers respectively, followed by Walsall with 57%, headed by CE Dr Helen Paterson. In this sphere of local government at least, there has indeed been a metamorphosis.

Photo

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

_________

A version of this blog – ‘Equality progress – but room for improvement’ – was published by the Birmingham Post, March 24th, 2022 https://www.pressreader.com/uk/birmingham-post/20220324/textview

Women in local and national governance: the balance (at least in the UK) has shifted

Chris Game

One thing I’d expect most of this blog’s readers broadly to agree on is that UK ‘local’ government should really be given what grammarians call doubt quotes. It ceased long ago to be meaningfully local, decades before the next generation of county-based levelling-up deals.

So, I thought, where better to start this International Women’s Day (IWD) overview of women’s elected presence in local and central governance than at the other extreme: Barbuda, the alphabetically secondary part of Antigua and Barbuda, the Caribbean country comprising these two Leeward Islands plus several enticingly named even smaller ones: Great Bird, Prickly Pear, etc.

Constitutionally almost just like us, A & B is a unitary, parliamentary, representative democratic monarchy: a two-House Parliament, with only the lower House directly elected, but Labour faring rather better than they have done here lately. Here’s the thing, though. The two main islands are wildly unbalanced – Antigua with over 97% of the nearly 100,000 population, Barbuda barely 2%.  Yet Barbuda is the one, for 45 years now, with the local democratic smarts: its directly elected Barbuda Council.

The island of Antigua is run by – yes, you guessed – ‘The Ministry’; in this case MESYGA, the Ministry of Education, Sports, Youth and Gender Affairs. Barbuda has not only its elected 11-member Council, but, as you’ll see from its Barbudaful website, a majority of women members and a woman Chair.

Such councils anywhere are rare, which is why – I could sense you wondering – Barbuda’s is deservedly up front on IWD, or in UoB’s case the start of International Women’s Month.  And the remainder of this blog will draw on some of the other amassment of data in surely THE most fitting sourcebook for the day.  Entitled, with needless modesty, a ‘Working Paper’, it’s UN Women’s  Working Women’s Representation in Local Government: A Global Analysis, authored chiefly by Ionica Berevoescu and Julie Ballington, published December 2021 – and it’s a treasure trove.

The overview of new local-level data that ideally should constitute the core of this blog is inevitably pretty summary, but needs to be made even more so by at least a brief reference to the subject’s overall political context and importance. Women’s rights to equal political participation at all levels of government have for the past quarter-century been variously asserted, affirmed, and endorsed in proclamations of international goals, most importantly in the 2030 UN Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – Target 5.5 being to “ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life” (emphasis added).

It’s that new indicator – extended to women’s representation in the world’s local governments, or at least 133 of them in early 2020 – that this blog was going to be primarily about.  It got kind of overtaken, though, by the even bigger question: Are women worldwide, as has long been the case in Britain, better represented in local than in national governments?

Given the nature of local governments’ usually major service responsibilities and expenditures, my personal feeling was that it would be rather regrettable if they weren’t – the more so if I was wrong on the UK figures, and, instead of simply getting closer by the year, they could be shown statistically finally to have crossed over.

SPOILER ALERT!  However, since, and probably even before, last Thursday’s Birmingham Erdington parliamentary by-election – in which Labour’s Paulette Hamilton became the seventh woman victor in this Parliament’s eight by-elections and the fifth to replace a male predecessor, bringing the total of women MPs to a record, and statistically significant, 225 – I WAS wrong.

p1

Here’s how. Thanks to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s annual tabulations, we’ve been able to track that part of the international picture for decades.  In the 1990s the top women-friendly countries were notably Euro-dominated, though with no help from us.  In !997, for instance, the only five Lower Houses internationally to have more than 30% women memberships were Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands. New Zealand, the Seychelles, Argentina and Mozambique were trying, but the UK was down in an embarrassing 50th place and unable to manage even double figures. Ahead, admittedly, of France and Greece, but that was about it.

Ten years on, thanks considerably to the arrival of variously legislated or voluntary gender quotas, the overall picture had improved, and Rwanda had crashed the 50% barrier, with 45 (56%) women in its 80-seat Chamber of Deputies. Cuba and Argentina were over 40% … and the UK, though still just ahead of France, was down to 60th, struggling now to reach 20%.

Today – or, more precisely, in last month’s IPU Parline rankings – the global picture has become more variegated still. The top 15, with around 45% or more women, currently comprise five countries from each of Europe (Iceland, Andorra, Sweden, Finland, Norway) and Latin America (Cuba, Nicaragua, Mexico, Bolivia, Argentina), two African (Rwanda, of course, and South Africa) and one each from Asia (United Arab Republic), Australasia (New Zealand), and the Caribbean (Grenada).

And the UK?  Up to a hardly glorious 45th alongside Dominica – with just over the one in three, which at least is better than the House of Lords’ 28.6%.

So … the big question was: Is our local government today – still, as always hitherto – more gender representative than our national elected legislature?

As you may sense, I wasn’t bringing absolute researcher detachment to this exercise. It was posed in the hope/expectation that it would prove to be what Latin scholars call a ‘nonne’ or affirmative question, expecting the answer ‘Yes.’  Of course there’d be a higher proportion of women councillors than women MPs – wouldn’t there?

I knew the 2019 General Election stats: 220 women MPs, including, obviously for the first time, majorities of both Labour and Lib Dem Members. Congrats, obviously, to them, but, with the Conservatives’ massive majority comprising under a quarter of women, local government would still have at least a narrow percentage lead – wouldn’t it?

But then began, as noted above, the striking trend of victorious women by-election candidates replacing former male MPs, and when Paulette Hamilton did her thing last Thursday, I was getting seriously nervous.  225/650 is 34.6%; rounded up becomes 35% – an all-time record, which is obviously a ‘good thing’, but worryingly close to what I reckoned the local government figure to be.

To cut a potentially tedious story short: if, as we relatively rarely do, we compare the whole of UK local government – as opposed to that of England, or sometimes England and Wales – it currently makes the decisive difference.  For the first time, authoritative, genuinely compiled and comparable statistics showed there to be proportionately more women MPs than women councillors.

p2

I shall now retire gracefully from this particular field of research and address something perhaps more rewarding – like whether being a plurinational, rather than merely multinational, state somehow boosts women’s electoral prospects.

p3

Photo

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.