KAREN ADAM: Could you go from voter to candidate?
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On May 6, I attended the local election count and it caused me to reflect on my own experience as a councillor, prior to election as an MSP.
Two issues surfaced in my mind: the people that choose to stand for election and why the pool of candidates is so small?
There’s a perception that councillors earn great sums. In reality, Aberdeenshire councillors generally earn c. £19k plus travel expenses and the pay ultimately hovers around the Real Living Wage if not below it, when the working hours are calculated.
This profoundly limits the sort of person who may want to, or be able to stand, when the pay is at a bare statutory minimum. True, some councillors fit in duties around other paid roles which can be tricky, and I’m not saying that £19k is not a lot of money but for many, it’s their sole income.
When I was a councillor in 2017, the “Improvement Service” organisation carried out a survey of all councillors elected in Scotland. The “average councillor” was a married white male, aged 50-59, who is a well-educated homeowner coming from a managerial or professional occupational background. These statistics around diversity among local councillors are unlikely to surprise many people: as in so many parts of public life and private business, those in positions of power and influence do not reflect the rich diversity of our communities.
Being a councillor is unlikely to ever have mass appeal but it does, however, need to have broad appeal so those who are interested in the role believe it is and can be right for them, regardless of their background.
We need high levels of awareness about the fundamental basics of what being a councillor involves, along with a broadly positive perception so as not to deter people at the first rung. Unless this awareness reaches into all groups in society, it will continue to constrain the representativeness of those who go on to explore the role in more detail and consider it.
The survey examined the demographic profile of councillors, (age, gender and ethnicity) but also looked at questions relating particularly to the councillor role, for example additional employment status, how councillor duties are managed and why councillors chose to stand at the election. There’s still a gaping hole
in recruiting from carers, the disabled and single parents.
In 2022, we must surely better understand how we can induce change and increase the diversity of those who stand for election from under-represented groups? While there are signs of progress, how
can we facilitate and
flexibly appeal to those of working age and of course, women, along with more people from a range of ethnic backgrounds and different sexual orientations, with disabilities and caring responsibilities, and from lower-income households?
The ability to have a positive impact on their local community is one of the main motivators that would encourage people to consider the role.
One of the most important ways to address these challenges is by “closing the gap” between those we want to engage in local politics and those who currently work as councillors. In order to consider the role, people want to hear real stories of achievements, success and impact. They also want to hear more about what a real “day in the life” of a councillor looks like, and to hear those stories through channels that speak to them directly.
If we developed opportunities for shadowing, buddies and mentors, we could see progress in making the role more attractive, particularly to those who are from similar backgrounds or who have overcome similar hurdles to the current crop of local councillors (all of whom I wish the very best of luck).