Strengthening democracy and participation: routes to re-connection and engagement – a provocation

Catherine Durose

This post is based on a provocation which I posed at INLOGOV’s recent Summer Symposium. It is an attempt to move on the conversation about engagement between local government, other public institutions, citizens and communities.

It is unlikely that anyone attending the Symposium – or indeed, probably reading the INLOGOV blog – has not had a conversation about either the desire or difficulty of re-connecting government and other public institutions with local communities and citizens. We may agree that this is an important conversation to have, but why is it one that we keep having? Why despite years of this issue being high on the policy agenda and the subject of so much academic research, why does it feel like little has changed?

A common response is that this lack of change is the fault of citizens: there is little appetite from citizens to engage, they are apathetic.

What is often neglected, is that apathy (which we could question in and of itself) is generative, it is a response to opportunities to participate which are often what Arnstein calls ‘empty rituals’ but it is also caused by a repeated undermining of citizens’ sense of agency and efficacy: as one activist said to me recently, ‘we felt we were being done to, over and over again’.

The reason that many of the attempts to ‘re-connect’ that come from local government feel stale, over- and misused, cynically applied, ineffective, and superficial; is because they often are, it is an appropriate reaction.

So how can we shift the conversation, using the words of Archon Fung, what are the ‘vision and grammar’ of alternative ways to re-connect: what are the principles and design that may move the conversation on a different way?

We may want to think about:


  • Principles: how do we see democracy and accountability working in localism, it is about building consensus or allowing space for contesting power and creating alternatives? What are the underlying values that we are seeking to advance? What kind of world do we want to create?


  • Intermediaries (boundary spanners, civic entrepreneurs, community organisers, deliberative practitioners, active citizens, 21st century public servants): who are those individuals who are able to build ‘vital coalitions’ to make things happen and get things done in neighbourhoods and communities? How can we support and facilitate their work?
  • Organisational change: How can we challenge a culture in local government that often struggles to let go, where officers and members thinks they’re in charge, second guesses, patronises the public, but also to find a starting point for a conversation that resonates with people?
  • Institutional design: What are the democratic potentialities in institutional design? Do we need to start with a perfect design or can we work it out along the way? Can we mix, match and merge?
  • Tools: Can a different medium be a different message? Can using spatial or visualisation tools, geo-apps help to change the parameters of the conversation and let citizens shout a little louder?

How can we use these different ideas to go from the inspiring, yet marginal, to the ‘new normal’?

Related blogs from the Summer Symposium can be read here


duroseDr Catherine Durose is Senior Lecturer in INLOGOV and Director of Research for the SChool of Government and Society at the University of Birmingham.  She is co-author of the forthcoming book, ‘Re-thinking public policy: why co-production matters?’ for Policy Press.




The prospects for a dramatically more representative Parliament post 2015 are bleak

Catherine Durose, Liz Richardson, Ryan Combs, Francesca Gains and Christina Eason

Whilst the likely outcome of the next election maybe still far too close to call, one feature of the next Parliament is very predictable.  The 2015 Parliament is likely to remain as deeply unrepresentative of the make-up of the UK population as the current legislature.  Although the 2010 Parliament showed some improvements in diversity, while women represent 51% of the UK population they formed just 22% of MPs; and although the ethnic minority population is 8% the number of ethnic minority MPs is half that at 4%.  Representation by other underrepresented groups: for example people with disabilities or openly LGBT is also less than would be reflective of the makeup of society more generally although this is harder to count.

This poor representation is despite all three main party leaders stating their support for efforts to improve the diversity of representation in Parliament in evidence given at a specially convened Speakers Conference before the last election.  While Lord Hurd has argued recently that greater diversity in political representation is a ludicrously radical demand, the Conference argued that improved diversity would support better policy making as MPs would draw on a wider range of experiences, and could act to enhance the legitimacy of Parliament and encourage greater political engagement.

Our research for the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, conducted just after the election in 2010, set out to explore the barriers to representation from underrepresented groups and to examine the pathways to politics taken by successful politicians from those groups protected by the Equalities Act to see what lessons could be learned.  We gathered primary qualitative data from a purposive sample of 62 national politicians and candidates, some who had been successful, and some who had not managed to achieve selection and/or elected office.  We also heard from around 20 lobby groups for under-represented groups within and outside political parties, and other stakeholder organisations.

In some cases shocking examples of sexist and racist attitudes were reported.  One black candidate was asked whether she was ‘one of them happy-clappy churchgoers’. One candidate recounted the experience of a local party member ‘hitting me on the bottom and asking me what a nice girl like me is doing in the Labour Party.’  A female ethnic minority candidate expressed her perception of the “double whammy” of discrimination she faced.  This also ran the risk of reducing support for diverse candidates.  In one example, other women in a candidate’s party assumed that she would get support from ethnic minorities in the party, but the other minority members were: “reluctant to support me because I am female and they are all men”.  Other attitudes towards women were less overtly expressed but still exclusionary. Women in politics perceived themselves as facing heightened expectations to justify their presence in a way that men did not. Yet, women were not taken seriously or seen to have the gravitas of male politicians.

While possibly horrifying, these might be familiar complaints about lingering outmoded common-or-garden prejudice.  However, beyond this, our analysis, published in Parliamentary Affairs, identified a systemic and institutional problem with local party ‘selectorates’.  A key issue mentioned by those we spoke to was the critical veto role played by the local selectorates, the local party activists who are responsible for selecting candidates.   Women and ethnic minorities reported facing ‘selector hostility’ struggling to secure the nomination for winnable seats as local party elites look for so-called ‘archetypal’ candidates.  The archetypal candidate reflects selectors’ own characteristics, but more importantly, those of previously successful candidates.  It is partly based on assumptions about electoral risk, and who different parts of the electorate will be prepared to vote for.  Candidates and sitting politicians saw this attitude reflected in the suggestions put to them to ‘have a go’ in ‘unwinnable’ seats. Analysis by Maria Sobolewska at the University of Manchester  has shown that, pre 2010, the Liberal Democrats selected the overwhelming proportion of their minority candidates in highly ethnic diverse seats, most of which were unwinnable and the Conservatives selected more than half of their minority candidates into hopeless seats.  The Labour Party selected the highest proportion of ethnic minority candidates for safe and winnable seats.

In our research, we argue that where candidates from under-represented groups have been successful, this is often because they were ‘acceptably different’ and shared particular ‘pathways’ into national politics which mitigated against the perceived electoral disadvantages of being from an underrepresented or  minority group.  One younger, male, ethnic minority politician highlighted how other aspects of his identity were able to make his ethnicity ‘acceptable ‘I think my age and colour ticked certain boxes and ex-military, public school boy ticked others’.  For women, this could take the form of being ‘one of the boys’, as explained by one respondent: “It’s how you fit in so they don’t think you’re a girl […] Once one of my colleagues described me as one of the boys, I think he meant it as a compliment but I’m not sure that it is.”  Such candidates are also likely to follow a pathway into politics which emphasises university education and a ‘politics facilitating’ or an increasingly  prominent ‘professional politics’ route.  Many of the new female or ethnic minority MPs elected in 2010 had experience in national politics as advisers, or lobbyists.  Of the 27 ethnic minority MPs, at least ten have legal backgrounds (37%).

Whilst this new type of pathway into politics can help to overcome selector hostility if candidates are filtered both through local selectorates and through professional pathways, then a key policy question in increasing diversity in representation becomes how to open up politics.  One of our interviewees said “When I was trying to become a Parliamentary candidate I was asked on more than one occasion what my qualifications were and they meant academic qualifications. One woman even said it was a real shame because one of the other candidates was a lawyer and another one had a PhD and although I seemed like a really nice woman I wasn’t really [of] their calibre”.

Although the Labour Party is persisting with the unpopular but effective policy of making 50% of its target seats selected from all women shortlists, this willingness for the party elites and the party machinery to work with local selectorates to overcome selector hostility is not found elsewhere.  Although David Cameron is clearly committed to wider diversity, Conservative members are deeply resistant to either interference from the national party or equality measures, as highlighted by recent media reports, and supported by other research by Sarah Childs and Paul Webb. And the Liberal Democrats are also struggling to take any positive measures, with the ongoing furore over sexual harassment claims still making headlines.

Without tougher efforts by all parties to address their own openness, attitudes and ‘selectorates’, the portents for the 2015 Parliament being radically more representative than 2010 do not look good.

This blog first appeared on Democratic Audit, 27 January 2014


Dr Catherine Durose is Senior Lecturer and Director of Research in the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham and works with the Public Services Academy.


Dr Liz Richardson is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Manchester, and a Visiting Fellow in the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE) at  London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).  Her previous roles include Co-ordinator of LSE Housing at the LSE. Liz is co-editor of the journal, Local Government Studies.  She is also a Director of a community charity, the National Communities Resource Centre.


Ryan Combs is a Research Associate at Centre for Primary Care, Institute of Population Health at the University of Manchester.


Francesca Gains is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of Manchester. Before entering academia she worked in local government and the probation service, and has both government funded and Parliamentary research experience. Her research agenda explores the relationship between political management arrangements and policy outcomes.

Christina Eason has a PhD from the University of Manchester’s School of Social Sciences and has research interests in British politics, gender, women, representation, and institutions.

Shocking but not surprising: the problem is not with women but with the political parties

Catherine Durose

EHRC research exploring the under-representation of women and other groups protected under the Equality Act (2010) has been used to support a call for the Coalition to act to address the issue of women’s representation in Parliament. Women from the Political Studies Association’s Women and Politics group challenge the government to accept the logic of sex quotas and introduce legislation for elected institutions in Great Britain.

In the call for legislative quotas, researchers from the PSA women and politics group argue that if local parties are worried about having local candidates they can recruit and support local women to stand for selection. Supporting more candidates locally can have the benefits of reducing the costs (and barriers) of candidature and election and can potentially ‘open up’ politics to a wider range of people, as well as reinforcing the constituency link in national politics. As the Councillor’s Commission suggested, one way to do this is to encourage more civic and issue-based activists into politics. Such activists bring not only important skills but also an authenticity currently seen to be lacking in politics.

The Call

Claire Annesley, Rosie Campbell, Sarah Childs, Catherine Durose, Elizabeth Evans, Francesca Gains, Meryl Kenny, Fiona Mackay, Rainbow Murray, Liz Richardson and other members of the UK Political Studies Association (PSA) Women and Politics group.

This last week has seen the issue of women’s representation in Parliament hit the headlines, once again: Samantha Cameron apparently lamented the lack of women in politics to her husband; mid-week, job-shares for MPs were put forward as a new way to increase the number of women in the UK Parliament and there have been calls for quotas for the National Assembly for Wales. Over the weekend the Liberal Democrats launched two inquiries into the alleged sexual harassment of prospective women candidates and this Monday the 2013 Sex and Power Report was published, documenting the ‘shocking’ absence of women from all areas of public life. The findings of Sex and Power may be ‘shocking’ but they did not come as a shock to feminists. Enough is enough, it’s time that the Coalition Government stepped up and implemented the recommendations of the 2008-10 Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation. It should follow the evidence commissioned by Parliament, accept the logic of sex quotas, and introduce legislation, for Westminster and other elected institutions in Great Britain.

Party leaders have said it before, and no doubt they’ll say it again: In the words of David Cameron:

“Companies, political parties and other organisations need to actively go out and encourage women to join in, to sign up, to take the course, to become part of the endeavour”.

The problem is that exhorting women to participate in politics will never address the ‘scandalous’, as Cameron also put it, under-representation of women at Westminster. Men are nearly 80 % of the House of Commons. Women are not even half-way to equal presence. Labour does the best with a third of the Parliamentary Labour Party female. The Tories at 16 percent, come second, and they did more than double their number at the last election. The Lib Dems trail in last, at just 12 percent, with fewer women candidates and fewer women MPs in 2010 than in 2005.

The situation is depressingly familiar at other levels of government in the UK. Despite Nordic levels of women’s representation when the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales were first created, the overall trends are of stalling or falling with campaigners calling for legislative quotas in devolved and local government and for the Speaker’s Conference to be replicated.

Fewer women than men currently want to be politicians – we need to address the reasons why and make sure that there is greater diversity overall in Parliament – but the most pressing problem is not with women but with the political parties and their willingness to select and support the qualified women who would like to stand in seats where they have a good chance of winning. Cameron himself acknowledged this last week:

“Just opening up and saying ‘you’re welcome to try if you want to’ doesn’t get over the fact that there have been all sorts of barriers in the way”

These multiple barriers were examined extensively in evidence given to the specially convened Speakers Conference which looked at how to improve the diversity of representation at Westminster. Only some of its recommendations have since been introduced. One key recommendation was that candidate selection data be routinely published so the public can see who was being selected by the parties. Unfortunately the Coalition has opted for a voluntary approach to the publication of this data. In its absence, political parties will likely get away with shifting the blame onto women when what is at issue is their failure to recruit women.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s evidence to the Speaker’s Conference was just one of many to identify the barrier of party demand: a perceived gap between the rhetoric for equality of representation by national party elites and the reality of decision making at the critical point of candidate selection on the ground. EHRC research shows local parties frequently opt to pick candidates who fit an archetypal stereo-type of a white, male professional. The Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems choose to address this particular barrier in different ways – with only the Labour party addressing it by using a party quota, All Women Shortlists. Yet, the Speaker’s Conference recommendations were clear that in the absence of significant improvements in 2010, Parliament should consider legislative quotas. There was no such significant increase. And looking forward, there is, if anything, talk of declining numbers of Conservative and Liberal Democrat women in 2015.

The global evidence on quotas is clear: well designed and properly implemented quotas are the most effective way to address the under-representation of women. Shouldn’t the Government follow the evidence? Other measures can and do make some difference. It is why we support the call for MP job-shares; the training for women candidates that all parties provide; and diversity training for party selectorates, amongst other measures. And it’s why we welcomed the Conservative Party’s A list at the 2010 general election, even if it could not guarantee the selection of greater numbers of women. But the gains across the board have just been too slight and are taking too long.

The Coalition could – if it really wanted to – act on this issue now. Introducing legislative quotas – making all political parties implement quotas – would give the two party leaders ‘political cover’. Both leaders’ positions on quotas are on the record: they gave commitments to the Speaker’s Conference in person. Clegg said he wasn’t ‘theologically opposed’ and Cameron said he would use some AWS before the last election, although in the end he didn’t. And we are pretty confident that Labour would support legislative quotas: how could it not given its own record on this issue?

We acknowledge that hostility to quotas is out there, but criticisms can be challenged. Quotas are not the electoral risk that some activists suggest. Studies show that being an AWS candidates does not cause electoral defeat. If the principle of merit troubles, one can counter that current selection processes are themselves not meritocratic. Cameron said so himself. Nor do quotas produce unqualified or poor quality women MPs – few know which of Labour’s 1997 intake were selected on AWS, and they were equally as successful in terms of promotion. And we simply don’t buy the argument that there are not enough qualified women out there – each party has its ‘folder’; and if it is perceived to be a bit thin, some good old fashioned searching will find more. Evidence from the US shows us that party demand begets a greater supply. The Government can also make other changes to increase the supply of potential candidates – let’s give the House more professional hours and ensure that families can afford to live and work in both London and the constituency, for example. Finally, and for some the bottom line, is criticism of what local parties regard as top-down measures. But if the truck is with ‘outsider’ women ‘being imposed’ then local parties can recruit local women to stand for selection.

Candidates are being selected as we write – the time to act is now. So, Messers Clegg and Cameron, be constitutionally radical (there’s not been too much success so far here) and leave a legacy of gender equality from the Coalition Government. Let’s have a House of Commons that closer approximates the sex balance of the UK in 2015. You could, at a minimum, set up a Second Speaker’s Conference with the remit to implement the recommendations of its predecessor and to work with other parliaments and assemblies across the four nations. Or be even more bold: to expedite women’s representation the Government need only introduce a Bill establishing legislative sex quotas. The alternative is for us to wake up the day after the 2015 election and find the party leaders once again bemoaning the continuing under-representation of women at Westminster.

This post was originally featured on the PSA Women and Politics blog.

A shortened version of this post was also published by the Huffington Post.

The EHRC research cited here was led by Catherine Durose (University of Birmingham) with Liz Richardson, Francesca Gains, Ryan Combs and Christina Eason (University of Manchester) and Karl Broome (University of Sussex).

The work has also been cited in the recent report of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, ‘Councillors on the frontline‘.

For further discussion of these findings see Durose, C., Richardson L, Combs, R., Easton, C., and Gains, F. (2012) ‘Acceptable Difference’: Diversity, Representation and Pathways to UK Politics. Parliamentary Affairs.


Catherine Durose is Director of Research at INLOGOV. Catherine is interested in the restructuring of relationships between citizens, communities and the state. Catherine is currently advising the Office of Civil Society’s evaluation of the Community Organisers initiatives and leading a policy review for the AHRC’s Connected Communities programme on re-thinking local public services.

Elected Mayors: The Wrong Solution to the Wrong Problem

Catherine Durose

Only one eligible voter in every three participated in the local elections in May 2012, the lowest turnout since 2000 and despite a context of austerity and swingeing public spending cuts. The recent elections for Police and Crime Commissioners saw turnout slump to a record low for a national poll, averaging at 15%. To quote a Guardian editorial, ‘lack of engagement is the most eloquent of all the political messages…. and one that the parties need to take most seriously. Voters are fed up, not fired up’. Collapsing turnout is perceived as part of a wider decline in traditional forms of political participation, this trend has been labelled as a ‘democratic deficit’ and it is this ‘problem’ that elected mayors are seen as offering a fix to by as simplifying local democratic accountability and offering greater visibility for citizens.

In the referenda held in May 2012, the rejection of elected mayors was near unanimous. The average turnout was low at 32% with over 60% of those who participated, voting for the status quo. The turnout can be, in part, explained by the uncertainty and confusion amongst the electorate about what they were being asked to vote on (the powers which elected mayors would have was, and remains, unclear). But, the size of the ‘no’ vote suggests, at the least, a lack of enthusiasm about electing more politicians. Indeed, voters in Hartlepool have now decided to scrap the position of a directly elected mayor after three terms of office.

Bristol is an exception, by a narrow margin of 7%, it was the only one of the ten cities to vote in favour of an elected mayor. Yet, the Bristol mayoral election, held on 15 November 2012, only received a turnout of 27.92%. Of the fifteen candidates who contested the elections, only one was female and one was non-white. The newly elected mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, whilst depicting himself as an independent, has previously sat as a Liberal councillor and contested a seat at two General Elections for the Liberal Democrats.

In thinking about why citizens are ‘fed up’ with local democracy and why the idea of elected mayors was a turn-off, perhaps we should take a look at those contesting and winning these elections. As in Bristol, mayors do not represent a radical departure from the professionalised political class or indeed the mainstream political parties which citizens are increasingly dis-engaged from: Boris Johnson in London, Ian Stewart in Salford and Peter Soulsby in Leicester, are all former MPs; Joe Anderson in Liverpool is a former Leader of the council.

I would argue that elected mayors are the wrong solution to the wrong problem. The currently proposed fixes in the constitutional reform agenda, including elected mayors, to deal with the ‘democratic deficit’, are clearly not producing changes which citizens are interested in engaging with. Perhaps this is because the assumption that underpins such fixes – that citizens are apathetic about politics – is incorrect. If we challenge this thinking, then many of the proposed fixes seem like the wrong solution to the wrong problem. If we instead recognise that many people feel that representative politics doesn’t represent them or indeed engage with the important issues that affect their everyday lives, then a different problem with a potentially different solution emerges.

One means of responding to a decline in traditional forms of political participation is to offer different opportunities to engage democratically. Broadening the range of democratic engagement fits with re-thinking what citizenship means: it’s less a ‘status’ which people possess and more a ‘practice’ that people participate in. Looking at data on levels of different forms of civic activity in the UK suggests there is a healthy base of existing participation and an appetite for more. The Hansard Audit of Political Engagement suggested that 14% of people are already active, but 51% felt that getting involved could make a difference; 14% of these were considered as ‘willing localists’, people who were not actively involved but were willing and likely to do so locally.

But how can we tap into this latent demand? First, local authorities and other public bodies need to stop ‘second-guessing’ citizens.  Recent research highlighted that whilst two thirds of local councils felt that the community would be unmotivated to participate more locally, less than 20% of them had formally assessed communities’ interest.  Second, we need to acknowledge that a lot of current opportunities for ‘participation’ replicate some of the problems of local representative democracy by acting as ‘mini town halls’ offering only tokenistic consultation of citizens, failing to recognise Sherry Arnstein’s seminal observation that “there is a critical difference between going through the empty ritual of participation and having the real power needed to affect the outcome of the process”. Third, to look for alternative ways to mobilise citizens and communities. I recently attended Locality’s annual convention – the organisation now recruiting and training 500 senior community organisers, along with a further 4,500 part-time voluntary organisers, over four years spent working with community host organisations. For Locality, this initiative is about ‘building a movement’. Speaking to organisers, they see their challenge as mobilising social action and generating a sense that change is possible. I have seen the impact of organising first-hand in Chicago, and it was inspiring to hear the impact the programme is already making there. If an elected mayor is to make a difference to local democracy, it won’t be as a visible manifestation of Politics, it will be about embracing and supporting these new social movements.

Catherine Durose is Senior Lecturer and Director of Research in the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham.  Catherine’s research focuses on the changing relationships between the state, communities and citizens.