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Is all politics local?

To varying degrees all mainstream British political parties have signed up to the underlying principle that political institutions should (broadly) reflect the social characteristics of the people they represent.  This is most obvious with sex, where quotas for Westminster parliamentary seats were used by Labour in 1997 and 2005, with other measures used in the devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales.

There are also ongoing debates about ethnic minority representation; witness the 2008 establishment of a Speaker’s Conference, which initially set out to examine the representation of women, ethnic minorities and the disabled, and which was then expanded to include sexuality as well.

Yet in the UK the goal of greater representation of women has often become framed as a zero-sum game against men, especially local men.  This was at its most obvious in the constituency of Blaneau Gwent, a formerly safe seat lost by Labour to a local independent candidate in 2005, after the imposition of an all-women short list. The same tensions are however evident in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties.

This is, at least in part, because whilst lots of the academic literature focuses on characteristics like sex and ethnicity, the public appear to care much more about localism.

In 2008, as part of some research in which I was involved, the polling company YouGov asked a sample of adults whether they would prefer their MP to be a candidate of the same sex – but who came from outside their area – to a candidate of a different sex – but who was local. Overwhelmingly, they preferred the local over the outsider. Men preferred a local woman (76 per cent) to a man from outside the area (6 per cent), with 18 per cent don’t knows.  Women preferred a local man (75 per cent) over a woman from outside the area (5 per cent), with 20 per cent don’t knows. In other words, women said that they would prefer to be represented by a man as long as he was local rather than a woman if she came from outside the area, by a factor of 15:1.

This article, just published in Political Studies (and for which a subscription may be required), examines whether the claims made for the descriptive representation of women and black candidates can and should apply to local candidates.  Co-written with Sarah Childs from the University of Bristol, it draws a distinction between the representation of a territory (which is common to most representative systems) and the representation of a territory by someone from that territory, a similar distinction to the difference common in the gender and politics literature between the representation of women by an elected representative and the representation of women by women representatives.

We found a hard and a soft form of this second argument.  The latter applies to almost every constituency in the UK, but it is a claim not based on arguments for the presence of the disadvantaged, however much voters may want a ‘local’ candidate. However, the case for a local candidate to represent a more disadvantaged constituency, the harder form of the argument, can be made on almost all of the criteria applied to other excluded groups identified in what is often called the ‘politics of presence’ literature.

Political parties and academics need to take this issue more seriously than they do at present. Despite the fact that the academic literature on the politics of presence pays relatively little attention to the desires of voters, it would be foolish for the political parties to ignore an identity that voters clearly feel matters to them.

Advocates of the descriptive representation of groups, such as women or minority ethnic communities, essentially have two choices. First, they can choose to challenge the concept of the ‘local’ candidate.  Or, alternatively, they could choose to utilise it. If what is stopping the selection of, say, women candidates is that they are (geographic) outsiders, then gender equality activists and party HQs might usefully spend their time mobilising local women and/or trying to bring local women into the party in order to increase their numbers.

Philip Cowley

Published inBritish PoliticsGender PoliticsLocalismPolitical representation

One Comment

  1. Peter A Peter A

    On women and localism – I think the next step in this research is to come to some sort of agreed definition of localism (which you do discuss in your paper with Sarah Childs) and then compare this to how the general public define localism or what it means to ‘be local’. I think there is a distinct possibility that the definitions offered could favour male candidates, but this does depend on their content. This would require feminist scholars to normatively challenge the idea at root, something that I think would be fairly straightforward – women are often at the heart of their communities, and research by Yvonne Galligan looking at localism in Ireland has shown that women can in fact ‘use’ localism highly effectively and overcome any discrimination on the basis of sex.

    I think the role of local councillorship in this debate is of interest – can it allow someone to, or at least aid someone in, becoming local? Another question here is on what basis – do the actions and roles of councillors affect their ability to utilise their service as part of a wider local profile? And finally, is this gendered?

    My only other concern with this research agenda is the extent to which people would be concerned with whether or not their candidates were local had an academic not asked them – there are cases like Blaneau where localism has overridden the party effect, but I think this needs broader support across the country to become a solid idea.

    An interesting research field, for sure!

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