Binita Mehta-Parmar is the former Conservative Group leader on Watford Council. Gillian Keegan is the MP for Chichester and the former Director of Women2Win.
The night of June 8th undoubtedly saw disappointing results for our party nationally. A further downside was that we missed the opportunity to cross the historic threshold of 100 Conservative women MPs, despite a lot of admirable work put into encouraging women to stand in marginal and retirement seats, notably by Women2Win.
A month earlier, in May’s local council election, we saw a much more positive night for the party, as we gained over 500 seats. But even at local level, we sadly saw more stagnation in terms of getting more women in. On English county councils, the increase in female representation was just under two percentage points, taking us up to 25 per cent women on those Conservative groups. At this rate of progress, it will take 59 years for Conservative county councillors to reach gender equality.
That is far too long. However, the example in Welsh local politics shows that by focusing our efforts, we can change things more quickly – there, our female representatives almost doubled, from 20.2 per cent to 29.9 per cent.
These figures come from the final report of the cross-party Local Government Commission, on which Gillian is co-chair and Binita is a commissioner. For the last year, along with the Fawcett Society and the Local Government Information Unit, we have been looking at the reasons for women’s under-representation on councils nationwide. Only a third of councillors across England are women – with barely any progress in two decades, as we have pointed out on this site before.
Our conclusion is that councils need to change the way they do business to make the role possible for women with other commitments – whether that is employment, childcare, or looking after elderly relatives. At the moment, just four per cent of councils have a maternity policy for their councillors. Cover for the costs of childcare or care for adults during meetings is patchy. And while electronic meetings – through Skype and similar applications – are de rigueur in the corporate world, councillors cannot attend or vote at meetings remotely.
Local government can and must change this. With leadership and support from Whitehall, more flexible working practices should be adopted. The changes required are not difficult to implement, or costly, but they would make a big difference in accessibility. We also need to ensure that when women experience sexist behaviour from other councillors, as our commission found a third have, a formal standards committee, with authority, is available to hear their complaint.
With a more hospitable environment in place, we need to go out and sell the merits of the role to women across the country.
We have both enjoyed roles in local government – Gillian as a Portfolio holder in Chichester and Binita as group leader in Watford. Unless we build the pipeline through our existing network by asking more women to stand, we simply won’t make progress. We heard during the commission about the huge impact women can have on their community – 40 per cent say they have more impact than they expected – and it is a great way to develop skills and experience that are transferable to many other roles. But as a party, we are not doing enough to reach into communities and spread that message.
Associations and council groups must take on this work, especially in the 2018 centenary year of votes for women – a campaign led by Emmeline Pankhurst, who later became a Conservative candidate.
As a party, we need to back up these changes with a clear message: that equality on our councils matters. We have not shied away from asking the FTSE100 to set rigorous but achievable targets for women on their boards – so why should we shy away from doing so on our councils? We call for those targets to be set for each year’s round of elections, to push towards gender equality.
The commission has recommended that if progress is not being made by the next general election, the case for legislating a time-limited requirement for 45 per cent women candidates will be made – adapting the recommendation for Parliament of the cross-party Women and Equalities Select Committee.
We aren’t getting enough women elected as Conservative councillors. We can’t wait more than half a century to fix this problem. If we don’t want to go down the route of all-women shortlists, which we personally disagree with, we Conservatives need to set targets, bring councils up-to-date, and get the message out there to bring more women in.