To make the change, be the change

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To mark International Women’s Day 2021, CLES researcher Eleanor Radcliffe shares her thoughts on the lot of women in the time of Covid-19, representation in local government and the seeds of hope to be found in new approaches.

A lot has changed since International Women’s Day 2020, but sadly not much for the better. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed and deepened the inequalities already present within our economy, disproportionately impacting women. Worse yet, not everyone has fared equally. The poorest, disabled, lone parents, young, and black and minority ethnic women have been particularly negatively affected. The impact for working mothers has been significant, with the realities of home working compounded by the challenges of home school and providing more unpaid care. Mothers have spent two-thirds more time on childcare than fathers, and those on the lowest incomes are nine times more at risk of losing jobs due to school closures. Our society is reversing progress on the emancipation of women and non-binary people, and to make the change we need in these areas, we need to be the change.

“the budget did little to truly tackle the systemic inequalities which affect women”

The government’s spring budget was an opportunity to begin to address the disproportionate impact on women as a result of the pandemic. However, as the Women’s Budget Group have examined in depth, the budget did little to truly tackle the systemic inequalities which affect women. These include the questions of:

The gendered reality of the interrelated crises of ten years of austerity, the Covid-19 pandemic and policy failing to address inequalities is undeniable. However, this is no real surprise when we consider who is represented within the halls of power. For any democratic institution to serve its community, it must be represented by the community it serves. Awareness raising courses can never be a substitute for lived experience.

While national government has progressed in increasing the proportion of women in the UK parliament from 18% to 34% since 1997, representation is still far from equal. Efforts have been made to increase female representation, alongside broader representation, by groups such as The Parliament Project, but until recently they have predominantly focussed on national government rather than regional and local governments.

“only 24% of council chief executives and 35% of councillors in England are women”

75% of jobs in local government are held by women, yet only 24% of council chief executives and 35% of councillors in England are women. While efforts are being made to develop greater representation within our councils, at the present rate it will take 48 years to achieve gender equality. It is unacceptable that young women today will have to wait until their 70s to see equality in the local authorities that represent them.

The question of how to increase representation is huge and one which speaks deeply to the UK’s relationship with politics and the way decisions are made within its democratic institutions. You only need to look at the front bench of the House of Commons during PMQs to see some of the behaviours which are enabled within our current approach to politics. The answer to breaking this deadlock won’t come overnight, like much in politics. Different voices will lead to different methods of doing and those different methods will attract further different voices.

“to apply these initiatives at scale, we must turn to international examples”

At the local level, the dominant approaches to decision-making and leadership are still at odds with co-operation and cultures of care. They act as barriers to more open and collaborative approaches to decision-making. While many local governments are making efforts to deepen democracy – such as Newham Council’s Democracy and Civic Participation Commission – to apply these initiatives at scale, we must turn to international examples.

The Fearless Cities network is a movement of new municipalist cities which place community at the heart of both local politics and economics, based upon strong local municipal institutions and communities. Laura Roth, an activist and academic with extensive experience of “feminising politics” as part of the Fearless Cities movement, has spoken at length about how to open up local politics and institutions to those who feel unwelcome in decision-making spaces, and the importance of taking a different approach to local politics to make this happen. Barcelona en Comu (a citizen platform in Barcelona elected as the minority government of the city in 2015) is a prime example of a group which have endeavoured to achieve this by introducing horizontal decision-making and new forms of leadership. The city’s leadership and decision-making is informed and held accountable by 1700 activists working autonomously in neighbourhood assemblies, policy groups and committees, using practices which enable greater participation from a wider range of people (e.g limiting the time each speaker has to speak, using a range of mechanisms to allow people to contribute, and ensuring caring responsibilities are factored into planning any meetings).

“Deliberative and participatory democratic approaches are blossoming across Europe and within the UK”

There is also an increasing movement to change the way we “do” politics at a local level more broadly. Deliberative and participatory democratic approaches are blossoming across Europe and within the UK. These range from deliberative democracy – with local and regional authorities using citizens’ assemblies and juries to work with residents around climate change – to co-production and even a growing movement of independent councils under the banner of “Flatpack Democracy”.

To build an economy that truly meets the needs of women and non-binary people, and all those who are disadvantaged by our current economic system, we need to consider who makes decisions, how they choose to lead, and how our people can shape the policies and practices which affect their lives. A revised approach to local democracy needs to sit alongside a deeper understanding of how we can shape our local economies to be more equal, taking approaches which build community wealth while tackling systemic injustices.

CLES is currently exploring the feminisation of politics in relation to our work on new municipalism, deepening democracy and community wealth building. There is a significant amount to uncover and a wealth of literature and knowledge which has been built over years of work done by dedicated activists and progressive academics. We will be publishing a paper on the feminisation of politics imminently, and would be interested to hear from people working in this space to share ideas and collaborate. Contact Eleanor if you’d like to know more.

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