The April issue of Parliamentary Affairs is now out and this issue’s Editor’s Choice is BAME Candidates in Local Elections in Britain by Michael Thrasher, Galina Borisyuk, Colin Rallings, and Mary Shears. The full article is free to download from the Oxford Journals website.
Opinion is divided. Some maintain that it is largely a problem of supply – not enough people from these groups wants to stand for election leaving the way open for the ‘male, pale and stale’ to dominate. Others point the finger at demand, suggesting that parties should do more to recruit candidates from among the under-represented groups and that affirmative action measures are called for. This might take the form of enforced retirement, limiting incumbents to a fixed number of terms and selection panels that are aimed at redressing any imbalance.
Our research looks at these issues in respect of candidates standing for local council elections. Since 2006 from among the many thousands of candidates standing each year a random sample has been asked to complete a questionnaire. The questions are varied – why did they decide to stand, what was the response from family, friends etc. to that decision, why were they selected and, of course, questions about them personally. From this we build a picture of the types of people standing and, by implication, those people not standing.
One group absent from local council benches is those whose ethnic origin is Black, Asian or from some other minority ethnic grouping. It turns out that such people are missing from among the ranks of candidates also. Using computer software that assigns ethnic origins to people on the basis of forename and surname we found at the local authority level that the percentage of BME candidates is about half the percentage in the population. We were also able to use this software to test for sampling and response bias to our surveys. There was no bias in the sampling but it turns out that BME candidates were shy about responding. Allowance was made for this in our analysis.
As expected, the proportion of BME candidates relates to the type of local authority. About one in five of those standing in London are of BME origin. In the English shire counties the figures falls to nearer one in forty five. But London is different to the other large cities where BME candidates comprise less than 7% of candidates, about the same as the shire district councils. Among the mainstream parties it is Labour that recruits best with the Conservatives slightly better than the Liberal Democrats. This probably reflects the different areas of party strength.
It would be nice to think that if more BME candidates were recruited then that might solve some of the problems of under-representation among younger people and women. Well, yes and no. Almost half the BME candidates are aged 18-45 years – double the proportion among white candidates. But while women comprise one in three of white candidates they drop to just over one in five among BME groups. There is no question that the BME candidates that do stand are even more atypical than their white counterparts; two-thirds have a higher degree and about a quarter are self-employed. It is also clear that these candidates are relatively new recruits to the world of politics with a shorter time as party members while 47% are contesting a local election for the first time.
Are there also differences that spill over into the decision to stand for election? Across all candidates a clear majority are asked to stand (normally a fellow party member) but some subtle differences surface. Among BME candidates 44% state the initial decision to stand was entirely their own which contrasts with 36% among other candidates. While about one in five of the BME candidates that took their own decision cite the pursuit of a political career as important this falls to just one in eight among other candidates.
There are also differences in the respective social networks and their influence. One in five among those BME candidates that stood after being asked were approached by friends or members of the local community. This is double the proportion among the white candidates.
This network of support becomes even more noticeable after the decision to stand has been taken. Just over four in ten white candidates acknowledge a positive response from community groups but this rises to six in ten among BME. A third of BME have support from local pressure groups compared with a fifth for whites. BME candidates, therefore, are much more grounded in their local community groups.
In an ideal world we would ask people that did not come forward to be candidates, why not? Tapping into this so-called ‘eligibility pool’ makes good sense but time and money prevents this in our case. The next best thing is to ask those that do stand why they believe some groups don’t stand.
The Table shows responses to questions about the causes specifically of BME under-representation.
* All figures show percentages among corresponding ethnic group
One interesting feature among these responses is that white candidates are more likely to adopt a neutral tone than their BME counterparts. For example, with regard to the statement ‘BME put families above political career’ some 52% of whites neither agree nor disagree. By contrast, BME candidates are less likely to sit on the fence. Although about two in three disagree that under-representation is caused by the fact that people from minority ethnic groups are not interested in politics a relatively large fraction, one in five, take the contrary view.
But what all types of candidates seem to agree upon is that much of the problem of under-representation resides in supply-side issues. Six in ten believe that too few people from these groups come forward to be selected as candidates.
Where does the blame lie for this lack of supply? A majority of all candidates believe that people are put off by the councillor stereotype of middle-aged, white males. But this consensus is broken when other factors are examined. More than one in four BME candidates believe the confrontational style of politics is off-putting – double the proportion among white candidates. Six in ten BME candidates think that local parties are not doing enough but fewer than four in ten whites think the same. Faced with such differences it is difficult to conceive of a plan of action to remedy the under-representation of BME on council benches that would meet with broad support.
You can download the full article for free online: BAME Candidates in Local Elections in Britain