In a little under a year, many people across England will have the chance to vote in the metro mayoral elections that were delayed due to Covid-19. Metro mayors are are among the most important political leaders across the country – and who they are matters. Those standing and subsequently elected should not be white men alone.
The position of ‘mayor’ covers ceremonial town and city mayors with very few powers; directly elected mayors who head up a single local authority; and metro mayors who are the most powerful of the three. Introduced in England from 2016 as part of the government’s devolution agenda, metro mayors represent combined authority areas and have the power to make crucial decisions which affect regions for years.
Sixty-two per cent of people in the north of England will be able to vote for a mayor in the next elections – a region where around 1 in 10 people identify as black or minority ethnic. Yet every single one of the region’s metro mayors is a white man: Andy Burnham, Steve Rotheram, Jamie Driscoll, Dan Jarvis and Ben Houchen. The creation of devolved institutions like combined authorities in the north are a welcome part of bringing power closer to people, but it seems they have been created with little regard for diversity.
Earlier this year, a devolution deal was announced for West Yorkshire, meaning more money, power and authority will be transferred out of Westminster to an area in the north that is home to an estimated 2.3 million people. West Yorkshire is diverse, with roughly a fifth of its population of black and minority ethnic backgrounds. Devolution should mean increased opportunities for people – especially for people of colour, many of whom have suffered the sharp end of austerity. The election will be a chance to elect a new metro mayor to speak up for the residents of West Yorkshire, and to represent its diversity. The best way to make the most of it would be to elect a woman of colour. The north has given rise to some formidable women and women of colour, so the region certainly is not lacking in credible candidates. From police and crime commissioners, to community activists and key workers – women of colour play crucial roles across the north.
The lack of visibility for women and women of colour in metro mayoral positions is not because they lack skill or ambition, but because they lack a level playing field. As has rightly been discussed in the media recently, racism permeates all parts of society and this includes our politics. As IPPR reported, women are less likely to be councillors – a crucial ‘pipeline’ into other political roles because they are less likely than men to be party members and selection processes can be opaque.
And as evidence from across the world has shown us time and again, women and women of colour in mayoral positions can be a huge force for positive change. Mayor Lori Lightfoot leads Chicago, the third-largest city in America and has been praised for revamping the council’s ethics framework and tackling gun violence in the city by holding weekly ‘accountability meetings’ with the police. Beng Climaco, leader of Zambonaga City, Philippines, was awarded the 2018 World Mayor Commendation prize. She has been vocal about the challenges of leading as a woman mayor especially since she was faced with an armed uprising as soon as she took office. Closer to home, Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, has put the climate emergency at the heart of her work by making the city greener and encouraging other global cities to do the same.
But coming back to the north of England, policymaking in the ‘northern powerhouse’ is still dominated by white men. If women and women of colour are not welcomed to the policymaking table then northern regions will miss out on the crucial experiences, perspectives and expertise they can bring.
So political parties must act. They should be transparent about membership and the number of women and people from protected groups who seek nominations, so that the scale of the challenge can be properly assessed. Parties must actively encourage women of colour to join, and support them to stand, building confidence through training and mentoring programmes. A study by the Local Government Information Unit and the Fawcett Society also argues that political parties should use all-women shortlists for metro mayoral elections. This is necessary.
Above all, parties have a responsibility to proactively root out racist and sexist behaviour at all levels. They have a duty to support their women of colour activists and must offer public, practical and pastoral support, especially when they face challenges while they break down barriers and challenge the status quo.
Combined authorities must act too. They are relatively new, and so have the space to develop more inclusive structures. As part of this, and especially where places have failed to elect women mayors, they should establish women and equalities committees as recommended by the Fawcett Society to create channels for engaging with women, as well as other underrepresented communities, to ensure that diverse voices feed through to policy decisions.
There are steps that you, and I, can take too. If you know a brilliant woman of colour, ask her to stand. And if you are a brilliant woman of colour: stand.