Making representative democracy more representative – what can we learn from exceptions to the rule

Last week it was reported that the average age of England’s elected councillors had risen to above 60 for the first time. Whilst it’s true that we have an ageing population, the average age of the UK population is still under 40. The figures for ethnic diversity and gender are similarly out of kilter with national averages – 67% male and 97% white.


Whilst the figures have only changed slightly since the last councillors census, breaking the 60-year mark is a symbolic milestone which ought to give us cause for concern. But this is nothing new. There have been numerous debates, lots of head-scratching, various initiatives to address the lack of diversity among our elected representatives. But not much has changed.


Maybe we ought to change tack…


When I tweeted about the discrepancy between councillors’ average age and the population mean I received a number of interesting responses, including a few who were keen to highlight how young the councillors were in their wards. These included my own Ward (East Finchley in Barnet) where two of our three councillors are in their 20s and a similar story in Newham where the eldest of the three ward members was just 35.


Clearly exceptions to the national picture exist (though this also means that some areas will have significantly older councillors than the national average). What interests me is what makes these areas different to many other places? What can we learn from these ‘positive deviance’ in order to encourage greater levels of diversity in other areas? Assuming of course we are concerned about the current situation – which may well be something not everyone sees as a problem.


The idea of positive deviance is not new, but it has been gaining traction and attracting growing interest (at least that’s my observation) among public policy practitioners and researchers. Rather than looking at the norm to understand what typically happens, it suggests we look at what happens in the small number of instances where things are different. Different in a positive way. By examining the characteristics and context of these exceptions we can identify what their features are which might offer lessons to support change in other settings.


Firstly I think it’s important to take account of local demographics. Some areas – particularly some parts of London, like Newham, have younger populations than average. This ought to be taken into account when we are thinking about the make up of our councillors. I’m not clever enough to be able to overlay average ages of wards with councillors’ ages, but I would be very interested to see such a data visualisation. (If there’s anyone who would be able to produce that sort of heatmap I’d love to see it!)


But whilst I suspect that looking at the correlation between local demographics and average councillor ages might throw up some interesting insights, it’s not likely to provide any real answers to the question of councillor diversity.


So I’d suggest we need to look at the exceptions in some detail to see what characteristics they share in common (if any) and how these might differ from other areas where councillors are older (or have less gender or ethnic diversity).


What role do party members play? Clearly they have direct influence over the selection process. Is the nature of party memberships a factor? Do areas with younger councillors have younger party members?


I remember (and indeed contributed to) the Councillors Commission back in 2007 that investigated in some detail how to make our elected members more representatives. A wide range of initiatives was recommended and many of them implemented (no doubt at considerable expense). Little has changed since then. In fact it’s getting worse.


Perhaps we should start focussing on the exceptions to the rule as a way of understanding how to address the issue.