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Local Government: Is it a Woman’s World?

Helen Belcher OBE sat down with four inspiring female council leaders to discuss her views, experiences and hopes for women in local government.

Early political steps

Haringey Council’s Labour Leader, Peray Ahmet, says that her parents’ culture meant “I was never supposed to be that interested in politics, you know, because I am a woman.” but that it was difficult to avoid with a politically engaged father.

Cambridgeshire’s Liberal Democrat Leader, Lucy Nethsingha, also describes being interested in politics since an early age, saying that when she was first elected to Truro town council at the age of 25, she was “by a long way, the youngest person” on the council.

And Glasgow’s SNP Leader, Susan Aitken, says she “always considered myself to be a kind of a policy wonk,” making a name for herself campaigning for more women in front-line politics, following her parents and grandparents, whom she described as “activists in things like CND and the anti-apartheid movement…as well as in party politics”.

Warwickshire’s Conservative Leader, Izzi Seccombe OBE, married into a political family. Her mother-in-law has been a member of the House of Lords since 1991. As her own mother became unwell, she began “to understand the difficulties of caring and things like that,” and decided to stand for council because of the experiences she gained trying to navigate council systems.

Differences in standards

Aitken felt that women in politics were held to different standards than men and gave an example. A Glasgow City Council officer gave incorrect information about the number of buildings with potentially problematic cladding to a post-Grenfell inquiry. She continued, “The media went absolutely nuts about it…one of my colleagues in the press office had phoned me…and he said…apparently, STV and another one of the radio stations…are coming to doorstep you at your house because of this.”

She contrasts this with how the media treated her three male predecessors. According to Aitken, one was caught “on microphone at committee making really misogynist and racist remarks,” one was “cautioned by the police for public indecency,” and one “had to resign in a scandal over cocaine use”. She says none of them were doorstepped over these things.

Seccombe, however, says “Women can be more challenging to women…There’s a sort of general acceptance in the world of women that this is a man’s world and sometimes we are our own worst enemy.”

Ahmet feels pressure being a mother of young children. “I’ve got a three-year-old and it’s that sense of just feeling a bit judged as a mother…It’s not seen as, wow, Saffy has a fantastic role model. It’s seen as, she misses Mum.”

Nethsingha points out the importance of different communities being properly represented in local Government. For “county councils in particular, the extent to which they are populated by white men with private means is extraordinary, really shocking”. She goes on to explain, “If you think about the people who largely carry the burden of caring for the elderly, the disabled, children with special educational needs, they are disproportionately less well-off women and very under-represented…If I didn’t have a husband in a well-paid and secure job, I couldn’t have carried on doing this either.”

Ahmet goes on to describe some of the differences she sees between the way men and women approach novelty or opportunity. “You talk to people about standing for council, and a lot of the women say ‘I don’t know, I’ve got this to do and I’ve got work to do.’ while men will usually say, ‘Yeah, I can do that, no problem.’” Despite this, Ahmet says eight of her cabinet of ten are women.

Seccombe describes a conversation she had when deciding whether to stand for Parliament. “I had a meeting with a woman [who said] ‘well, your husband’s on the list and what would happen if he and you both got constituencies? How would you work out your domestic arrangements?’ And I said, ‘have you asked him that question?’”

Seccombe didn’t say whether she got an answer.

Nethsingha adds that policies that are supposed to help women in politics do not necessarily work. As an example, she states “Most councils have a policy that is supposed to allow you to claim back to get paid for the caring responsibilities that you have while you’re at Council…[But] you can’t book a child into nursery for only the times when you’re at council meetings. So, I had to book [my child] into nursery every week, in order to be able to go to a council meeting every two months.” She added that this incurred considerable extra costs, which she could only just afford.

Issues with council funding

The pressure on council funding, again, emerges in all the conversations. Seccombe was the most positive, stating “I was particularly keen to try to reduce our costs and face the demand pressures, you know, growing ageing population and all that. So, within the first six months, I took seven very difficult papers to cabinet, all on the same day.” She closed all of Warwickshire’s council-owned care homes and day-care centres, while funding schemes to keep people living at home for as long as possible.

Ahmet is focusing on trying to improve youth services but said that councils were “getting grants from the government services, but they are never long term. They are never sustainable. It is just a bit of pot of money.”

Aitken explained that Glasgow City Council is facing around a £750 million settlement around equal pay and that the impact for the foreseeable future was a reduction in headcount. “I think one of the important things that our council does is to be an employer¾and to be a good employer and an exemplar for fair work. That’s part of how we contribute to the city’s economy. For every one less person that we employ, that role is a little bit diminished.”

Nethsingha thinks the problem is wider still. “The way in which Government hands out money makes it even more difficult. The short term is ‘Here’s a bit of money here and here’s a bit of money there and you’ve all got to bid for it and compete.’ It makes planning for decent services very difficult as well because they don’t give us any timescales to get the structures in place to enable us to deliver what they’re offering.”

Respect for women

Turning to International Women’s Day itself, all were supportive. Aitken says “I think it’s important that we, if nothing else, just keep reminding ourselves that we haven’t won. The patriarchy is still there.”

Seccombe preferred to focus on building women’s confidence. “I accept that there are some people who feel they need that extra leg up and that extra sort of crutch to support them. And it helps people to feel more confident about taking a step into the world of business, politics, give them confidence in their voice, which actually is what it’s all about.”

Nethsingha concentrated on the international aspect. “I think, maybe we’ve done more to fix things at the top than the bottom. And I think if you are a vulnerable woman, living in many, many countries around the world, your situation is probably worse than it was ten years ago.”

Ahmet agreed that such days were useful, but she wants a more lasting impact. “I think it’s good to come together and have these events that focus us, but let’s be honest,  it is Women’s Day, every day, right? It should be all year round.”

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