Women in politics: will the 50-50 campaign work?

Bristol bucked the national trend in May when the city elected four female MPs to parliament.

But Bristol City Council doesn’t fare as well in female representation. Just 36 per cent of current councillors are women, while 51 per cent of the city’s residents are female.

The 50-50 campaign aims to change this imbalance. Organised by the Bristol Women’s Commission and launched by the new lord mayor, Clare Campion-Smith, the campaign hopes to see numbers of female councillors rise to 50 per cent during next May’s election.

“It makes sense that the make-up of the council should reflect the make up of the local population,” Penny Gane, chairwoman of the Women’s Commission and Bristol Women’s Voice (BWV), argues.

“Women are underrepresented. That’s why we need a campaign. People talk about the ‘best person for the job’, but the best person for the job isn’t necessarily the person who has been in the job for years already, or yet another person in the same mould. The role is changing, the city is changing, it’s time to change the make-up of the council.”

“Evidence from across the world shows that campaigns and quotas are they only way to gain change quickly enough.

The campaign aims to achieve the goal of 50 per cent representation by encouraging women to stand for election in May who may not have considered putting themselves forward.

The campaign will continue until 2016 and will include a film on being a woman councillor, an information event in the autumn, publishing profiles of women councillors, and challenging political parties to put forward at least 50 per cent women candidates in winnable seats.

“Women can also shadow a councillor to find out what the role is really like,” Penny explained.

Naomi Rylatt, Labour councillor for Hartlcliffe, suggests that being a women in the council is a “very positive experience.”

“I’m a breastfeeding mother, and have found that the council has been a very welcoming environment. I’ve been able to bring my baby to meetings and even breastfeed.”

Nationally, 32 per cent of councillors are female, but only 12.3 per cent of council leaders are women. In Bristol, we currently have more female councillors than at any other point in the last decade, a rise of three per cent since 2005. However, in 2011 just 24 per cent of councillors were women.

Helen Mott, co-ordinator of Bristol Fawcett, a women’s rights charity, suggested that campaigns such as 50-50 were the only way change these figures.

“All four Bristol Conservative candidates are women and there were none of these lists. We need enlightened political parties and the equality will follow.”

“Evidence from across the world shows that campaigns and quotas are they only way to gain change quickly enough. Next year is a brilliant opportunity to gain this change, as it’s very rare to have all council seats coming up for election at the same time.”

But Charlotte Leslie, Conservative MP for Bristol North, told Bristol 24/7 in May that she was against all-women shortlists.

“They’re totally unnecessary,” she said. “All four Bristol Conservative candidates are women and there were none of these lists. We need enlightened political parties and the equality will follow. As a woman, I also want my right to meritocracy – to know I’ve got where I am on my merit, not on my gender.”

Naomi, although supportive of the 50-50 campaign, also cautioned against all-women shortlists.

“I think that they are positive as increase the number of female representation, but sometimes they can be a negative thing. It can mean that women only stand in all-women shortlist areas, and men in open shortlist areas. They help women take the first step towards standing, but I want to see women standing for election in all areas, not simply in all-women shortlists areas.”

Last year, the Fawcett Society published a research paper in which they criticised the lack of female representation on local councils. “Local government budgets make up a quarter of all public spending, and deep cuts are having a hugely disproportionate impact on women,” it said.

Helen suggested that the only plausible answer to this issue was to have more female councillors.  “The more women there are on the council, the more women-friendly the council will be.”

The campaign is set to launch on Wednesday evening, at 5pm outside City Hall.

Originally written for Bristol 247: http://www.bristol247.com/channel/news-comment/daily/politics/campaign-launch-for-50-women-councillors

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