Has the UK ever faced so many simultaneous crises? We are in the middle of a pandemic. The climate emergency is becoming ever more pressing. Our police service is having to reckon with a longstanding problem of racism; and there is much, much more.
Dynamic, changing times require fresh, progressive decision-makers. One thing is certain: we will not escape the problems that have blighted us for years, even decades, with the same old politics. Fundamental changes will nearly always have to be directed from the local level, so this is the place we must start.
Two months ago I became a councillor, at the age of eighteen. I’m the youngest councillor ever on my council, and the youngest in the south-west ‒ if not in England. In just over a month’s time I’ll be standing in the Devon County Council elections for the Labour and Cooperative Party, on a radical progressive platform that aims to restructure and future-proof all aspects of Devon, from our environment to our economy.
The handful of young people standing for office in Devon is very much the exception, not the rule. The average age of a councillor in England is 59. It rises to over 60 in shire counties such as those in the south-west. One in five councillors nationally are over 70, and just under half are retired. There are similar issues in terms of occupation, education, race and gender. Indeed, if you were to look at our councils as representative of England’s demographics, you would have a wholly incorrect idea of the nature of our communities.
I don’t buy into the idea that individual young people lack impetus or drive. Some might say that if young people want to make political change, they can just stand for office. They are right in one sense ‒ there is no legal barrier stopping young people from becoming decision-makers ‒ but when we see this representational deficit in every council and in every UK region, there must be something structural at play.
A possible reason could be councillors’ remuneration. At every local government level, drawing what are usually meagre allowances is stigmatised. In many cases, allowances are not even offered. For many young people who might otherwise be interested in being a councillor, this presents a significant dilemma. Someone in education or vocational training will often need to work on the side. Is it reasonable to expect anyone to be in full-time education and part-time work, as well as being a councillor ‒ a role that takes, on average, around 20 hours a week?
How about the relative mobility of young people? The fact is that many of us, in our late teenage years and early twenties, will travel around more than others. Whether that’s for business, education or leisure, we must still seek representation in our hometowns. One of the core principles of democratic participation is that anyone with a stake in the community should have a say in running it. This must apply even if young people (or those who have to travel for their jobs) spend more time than average away from home. If we accept the desirability of younger representation on councils, we must address the structural issues which prevent youth participation. Allowing councillors to join meetings remotely beyond the pandemic would be a start.
We know that diverse decision-making bodies tend to make better decisions than organisations constituted exclusively of similarly minded people. It is also fair to say that the government has let down women, especially mothers,throughout the pandemic, and has all too often failed to tackle women’s issues at the earliest opportunity. It is certainly the case that the current cabinet leaves much to be desired in terms of gender balance ‒ even being described as ‘blokey’ and a ‘boys’ club’. These two things are undoubtedly linked.
Taking this down a level, can we expect councils, as they are currently constituted, to tackle the crises of our time? Young people tend to be ahead of the curve in certain important ways. For instance, having been taught about it in school, it is hardly surprising that young people are far more likely to be highly concerned about climate change and to understand its human causes. More youthful representation would probably increase the chances of achieving the significant structural changes required to tackle the climate emergency.
It is also probable that young people will be more prepared to combat inequalities and corruption in high places than any other group. Growing up in a post-2008 economy and now entering the labour market, young people are more likely than average to be precariously employed, all too often by businesses similar to Uber. Working in insecure jobs, few of which will provide a stable or adequate income, could radicalise my generation. Our councils, with two thirds of their current members in managerial or professional occupations, are far less likely to promote radical economic restructuring.
Turning sentiments into words, and words into action, is hard. Taking the first steps to open up our councils will involve a long, hard reflection about the fundamentals of local government in this country. Reconsidering the remuneration of councillors, for instance, requires us to decide what being a councillor actually is. Is it a leisure-time activity for older folk, or a serious, part-time governance role for anyone?
Assessing the ways in which under-represented groups might be supported to participate may even require those who have had their time in the driving seat to step aside. Such transformational change will not come easily. But opening the doors to local government – not just for the young – will ultimately pay dividends for everyone, both in the short term and well into the future.