10 Years of FWN: Opening up local politics

Reema Patel

Last weekend, I chaired the Fabian Society’s session on devolution at the LGA Labour Conference where Graham Allen MP (Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee) urged local authorities and councillors to agree settlement that worked and could be negotiated upon for local government. At the same conference, Ed Miliband also pledged the most radical offer that the Labour party has ever committed to for local government, including the devolution of £30bn of funding, in addition to the powers to organise transport which are analogous to London’s powers.

All of this matters because as Labour delivers an ambitious vision for local government, people-powered public services and a relational government that co-designs and engages members of the public, we must deliver an ambitious vision for those who lead it. The more dynamic, creative, and diverse that group is – the better we are able to respond to our local areas, lead our local areas and explore how devolution can best serve local residents. We need to move beyond the paradigms of the debate – which so far have centred on shifting power away from central government to local government in order to ensure that a stake in decisions addresses a growing democratic deficit between people and the state. That democratic deficit exists both at the local and at a central level.

The deficit is not helped by the fact that we have so much further to go to open up local politics for women, and indeed for other excluded groups including those who are BME and disabled. Managing council life alongside caring responsibilities, the removal of pension entitlements and the hours involved in the evening all pose barriers to those with families, jobs and additional responsibilities. Proactive work on this matters in a climate where only 32 per cent of councillors are women and only 12.3 per cent of council leaders are women, and also in a climate where people are increasingly turning away from local politics.

Last year, the Fabian Women’s Network hosted an event for women councillors on localism at which Hilary Benn MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and Cllr Sarah Hayward, Leader of Camden Council spoke. This event presented a real opportunity for our diverse Fabian women to feed back to all panellists in the debate. Our mentoring programme has successfully developed Labour women councillors and equipped them with the skills they need for local success. Ten years on, it has invested in 100 women – and of those 100 women, 21 have become elected councillors. That means just over one in five mentees have already entered elected office across the UK just four years on from the start of the programme. That’s an extraordinary return and achievement by any stretch of the imagination and credit goes to my fellow committee member Christine Megson for her dedication to that work.

Our development work hasn’t just stopped there – alongside our programme and events, we have hosted regular debates and public speaking sessions in Parliament enabling women councillors and aspiring politicians to share expertise and to learn from each other in a safe space. The Fabian Women’s Network have also worked closely with the LGA Labour Group on identifying some of the barriers for diverse groups (including, but not limited to women) in entering political life at a local government level over the past year, and have engaged councillors from diverse groups in that work deploying a genuinely participatory approach.

As we celebrate our 10th Anniversary this week, women councillors will also take their seats in council chambers across the UK with keys to the gates of the chamber unlocked for them. I am of those women councillors, but because of schemes such as the Fabian Women’s Network’s – I know I won’t be the last.

Reema Patel is the FWN Secretary and a councillor in Barnet

The Fabian Women’s Network celebrate their tenth anniversary on Tuesday, 10 February 2015 from 18:00 to 20:30 at Royal Society of Chemistry, London W1J 0BA. For more information click here

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The Fabian Women’s Network has been at the forefront of the campaign for women’s power, rights and equality for ten years. This online series celebrates their tenth anniversary and looks at the future of women and politics.