There are decisions being made daily in councils across Scotland which will directly impact the lives of individuals and communities. Some of these decisions, bluntly, will be about helping people to both heat and eat.  

As the resources available to councils are becoming increasingly scarce, it is imperative that they are targeted most effectively.  To do this, we must ensure that we really understand need, both that which is apparent and that which is hidden.    

There is appreciation that the inequalities which existed before Covid, were exacerbated during the pandemic and that under-represented communities are suffering the greatest poverties, economically, socially and in terms of well-being. Moreover, the differences between rural and urban poverty are now being unpicked. As a result of all this, there is an increasing sense that things must be done differently. 

We have had some notable sparks of change and insights into what could be when, for example, some of the third of Scottish councillors who are women have worked to promote issues around family leave, gender budgeting and period dignity, thereby helping to empower women in the workplace and so enable their skills and experiences to contribute to achieving better outcomes.    

However, we haven’t learned from this – collectively we still haven’t placed enough priority on addressing the overall lack of diversity at our council decision making tables. We haven’t managed to attract additional voices of lived experience who could better reflect the needs of our communities as policies are set. Too often, councillors are still making strategic decisions for people rather than with people, and scrutinising outcomes for the organisation, without considering a person-centred approach.    

Councils have set up numerous forums of lived experience and consult on particular issues which they select and for which they control the agenda. Those in positions of power are deciding the matters on which people from our communities can express a view. However, it is within the democratic structures of Local Government themselves that those voices of lived experience would be best, most widely and most consistently heard. Here they would be voted in, representative and accountable to their communities.  

There is an urgent need to fully overhaul political participation in council policy making across Scotland. This work fundamentally includes ensuring that councillors are properly remunerated for the work they do, and that terms and conditions better reflect the role of a 2020s councillor.  A COSLA survey of councillors published in January 2021 found that a councillor works on average 38.5 hours per week but receives less than the Real Living Wage in return [1]. This is not going to encourage people from currently under-represented groups to step forward for election. By remunerating councillors as we do, we are preserving a system whereby those of independent means can more easily contemplate standing for election – this is damaging to our local democracy. The Scottish Government and COSLA made a commitment in March 2022 to work at pace on councillor remuneration and this remains key [2]. We need to be confident that remuneration won’t still be a barrier to people considering standing in the next Local Government elections.   

In addition, there are councils which still do not have policies for Family Leave for councillors, which makes the role very difficult for younger people or for those with wider caring responsibilities. There is no consistency across Scottish councils about the level of support which all councillors, but particularly disabled councillors, might expect to receive. Assumptions are made about the digital literacy of councillors and about their access to safe spaces for home working.  We are only just developing awareness that councillors do much lone working and can face abusive and hostile situations in person and on-line. Only very recently has partnership work with Police Scotland been initiated to give more support to our councillors and there is more work to be done on this. And in many areas, we have not started to address the culture which creates barriers to potential representatives from ethnic minorities.  

All this matters. The role of a councillor has evolved considerably since I was first elected in 2012. Councils remain the sphere of government closest to our communities, but the experience of the pandemic and the ever-deepening cost of living crisis has underlined the importance of making decisions as close as possible to the communities impacted. Councillors now have to engage more locally and to better represent all parts of their communities. More people are becoming dependent on the essential services of the council just as resources are becoming ever scarcer and there is a responsibility to maximise their impact locally.   

Yet achieving all this remains aspiration unless we hasten our continuing journey to local democracy, giving meaningful voice to people from right across our communities. We cannot afford not to act.  

 

[1] Councillor Remuneration Survey Results Public Documents | COSLA

[2] Increasing the Diversity of Local Councillors Public Documents | COSLA

 

Cllr Alison Evison was President of COSLA 2017-22, leading a diverse organisation and developing partnerships across the Public and Third Sectors, representing Local Government in the formulation of the Covid response and recovery strategies at a national level and working to achieve support across the Scottish Parliament for the European Charter for Local Self Government. Chair of the Improvement Service 2017-22 during a time of organisational change.  Recognised for supporting diversity in office and for encouraging inclusion for all.  Appointed by care experienced young people in Aberdeenshire as their champion 2015.  Previously Co-Leader of Aberdeenshire Council. A local councillor, engaging regularly with people across the communities of the Mearns and focusing on community planning with local partners. Honorary Lecturer, University of Aberdeen. Recently appointed Chair of NHS Grampian. 

Parties often seek to appeal to women voters through policy pledges. However, we know little about how these policies influence women’s voting behaviour.

My research explored this in the context of the 2015 general election. I held focus groups in two constituencies (Manchester Central and Altrincham and Sale West) up to 18 months after the 2015 election, with 61 participants overall. I split focus groups according to age category (under 35s, 35-64, and 65+). Here, I focus on two policy agendas that were prominent within the focus group discussions: childcare and austerity. For both policy agendas, I found that trust in parties was lacking. 

Childcare

As it stands, the UK has one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world. The issue of childcare was a “battleground” at the 2015 election, where Labour’s pledge to raise subsidised childcare to 25 hours per week for working parents was trumped by a last-minute pledge of 30 hours from the Conservative Party. Within the focus groups, the Conservatives’ 30-hour pledge was met with scepticism from some women, due to confined eligibility to parents working at least 16 hours per week on National Minimum Wage. Some also raised concerns that the policy was not properly costed: 

“I always take everything that the Conservatives say with a pinch of salt. So, the 30 free [childcare] hours, I think, well, how? Like no, it’s not as simple as that.” 

“The 30 free hours seems like a good idea but even then I think they’ve still put things in place where there are still loopholes…you still have to be earning over a certain amount in order for it to benefit you in any way.” 

“under the 30 free hours [the nurseries] only get a very small amount don’t they and obviously they’ve got to make a profit and that’s why they start charging for meals and all the other things…so it’s not really free hours, is it? Because you’ve always got the extras.” 

Austerity and living costs

The 2015 Election was held against a backdrop of five years of austerity measures. These measures hit women financially twice as hard as men, due in part to women’s greater reliance on the state for income, services, and employment. Younger women were particularly averse to spending cuts, and two women commented on the challenges of rising living costs:  

“Even now, food in supermarkets has got too dear, like meat and fish and things. I’ve become more aware of it. I used to do my weekly shop in Tesco but I changed to Aldi … I can’t afford a big weekly shop [in Tesco] anymore, not for the four of us.” 

“For me, it’s how to cope with the cost of bills when they keep going up, especially electricity I’ve noticed… Normally I can budget carefully on top of food and rent each month, but I wouldn’t say it’s easy… all it takes is one utility bill that’s much higher than usual and you feel it financially, sometimes for a while after, actually.” 

Research has shown that at the 2015 and 2017 elections, younger women’s financial pessimism and concerns over service provision were associated with their higher relative Labour support and reduced Conservative support. The focus group discussions illustrated that, comparatively, Labour’s economic policies on greater social spending were met with scepticism among older women: 

“You’ve got to think ‘it all sounds wonderful’ and then analyse it down…you can’t pay for it.” 

“Well [The Labour Party] cleaned the coppers out last time, didn’t they?” 

Conclusions

So, what can parties learn from this? Firstly, taking the example of subsidised childcare hours, parties should ensure that there is transparency regarding the costs and eligibility of their policy proposals. Secondly, parties should be fully cognisant that women are not a monolithic block. We often hear about ‘the women’s vote’ but, as Rosie Campbell highlights, it is more accurate to talk about ‘women voters’ given the average voter is a woman. Women’s trust in parties’ pledges manifested differently across life-stage, but we might also expect this to vary by other factors, such as ethnicity or class. Policy proposals should therefore speak to women voters in all their diversity. For Labour, clear challenges lie ahead in winning the votes of older women without alienating younger women, particularly along economic lines. For the Conservatives, the reverse applies. 

Gaining the trust of women voters is important. And there are, after all, real electoral incentives. Women comprise 54% of the British electorate due in part to demographic differences. On average, women tend to live longer than men: among those aged 85 and over, 65% are women. Men also comprise 95% of the prison population, meaning that many of them are ineligible to vote. In short, parties cannot afford to ignore women’s votes. 

 

Dr Anna Sanders is Lecturer in British Politics at the University of York. Her research focuses on gender, elections and public policy.