New research reveals BME people severely under-represented on local councils

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 9th July 2020

A census of UK councillors has revealed a significant ‘representation gap’ when it comes to diversity at a local level.

New analysis of UK local authorities has found that just 7% of councillors are from ethnic minority backgrounds – about half of the levels for the UK population. That compares to the 10% of MPs who are from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) backgrounds.

In an article for The Conversation, academics Maria Sobolewska and Neema Begum from the University of Manchester note:

“In national politics, Britain has made progress on ethnic minority representation in the last ten years. From a small handful of ethnic minority MPs there are now more than 60…

“What is now needed is this same intense scrutiny of local government..From planning, transport, education, housing and green spaces that affect everyone, to more specific decisions to do with grants for local organisations and powers over local businesses….local authorities can play a role in perpetuating ethnic disadvantages, or could be used to address them.”

Some councils representing ethnic minority populations of 40% or more have just 10-25% BME representation, the authors find.

They add that the effort that political parties have made to increase their diversity at a more visible national level – including by placing ethnic minority parliamentary candidates in safe seats – has simply not been replicated at the local level. It represents a major democratic disparity given that local councils have real powers over issues like education, care, and planning.

The academics conclude by backing a long-standing call of the ERS as well as equality organisations: it’s time political parties had to report on the diversity of their candidates and representatives. As they write:

“The effort and time involved in collecting and coding data on individual councillors is often prohibitive. This could be entirely avoided if the government chose to enact and extend to local government section 106 of the 2010 Equality Act, which puts a duty on the political parties to collect and report equality data of their candidates.

“The government has been called on before to enact this section, by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the pressure now should be reapplied, given the momentum of the anti-racist movement in the UK. Local councils could also be required to publish data on diversity just as the House of Commons now does routinely.

“This kind of scrutiny is necessary to keep up the pressure on political parties to improve representation at the local level, and thus ensure ethnic minorities have the power to improve their lives, and their opportunities as active participants in an important political institution.”

When it comes to tackling problems in society, it helps to know the scale of the problem – and where to focus our efforts.

While the progress in Westminster has been positive, parties need to open up about diversity at a local level, and start to make some progress.

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