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WMCA – the (almost) Wholly Male Combined Authority

WMCA – the (almost) Wholly Male Combined Authority

🕔15.Sep 2017

It’s been a lively summer for those interested in, or infuriated by, the under-representation of women in our elected sub-central government. Worth, I thought, a summary chronology, starting in the run-up to May’s Combined Authority mayoral elections, writes Chris Game.

March – The Fawcett Society, the women’s rights charity, publish an ‘Evidence Document’ on Women in Greater Manchester in conjunction with DivaManc, the Greater Manchester campaign group, formed to give women a greater say in the devolution debate.

“Women in the city region”, it asserted, “are tired of pictures of all-male groups of leaders signing devolution deals (see below), and all-male panels at devolution conferences”.

It asked all candidates, therefore, to respond to five Mayoral Pledges and Calls to Action, headed by “Gender-balanced leadership and representation across Greater Manchester”.

All five pledges were radical with potentially far-reaching implications. Yet all candidates readily signed up, including odds-on favourite, Labour’s Andy Burnham, as shown in the picture not of him, but of his signed pledge.

The Fawcett document outlined the hurdles involved in the “gender-balanced leadership and representation” pledge, the likelihood being “that only one of 11 official members of the Combined Authority will be a woman”.

Chief reason was not uncertainty about the election outcome, but that the ten constituent councils had already chosen their leader/elected mayor as their single permitted member of the GMCA, and only one at the time was a woman (Oldham’s Jean Stretton).

Having signed the pledge, therefore, the new Mayor should:

  • Call for the Government to amend this policy, and require each council to send two elected members as members of the CA, one being a woman.
  • If that failed, request that 50% of the councils nominate a senior woman councillor to attend in place of the leader/mayor; or ensure that all substitute members are women, that they attend on an equal rota, and have substantial roles and responsibilities.
  • If a man, appoint a woman as Deputy Mayor.

March 17th – In the West Midlands, Conservative candidate Andy Street’s 48-page, nearly 250-pledge Renewal Plan cum manifesto contains no reference to gender- or ethnic-balanced leadership and representation, or evidence of even passing concern with the rest of the Fawcett agenda.

May 5th – All six CA elected mayors are men – unsurprisingly, since 32 or the 39 candidates were.

May 6th New Mayor Andy Burnham appoints two deputies, one being Baroness Beverley Hughes – former Leader of Trafford Council, Labour MP and Minister – as Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, making 11 cabinet portfolio holders, two of whom are women.

Hughes is the only salaried deputy, her ‘mandarin appointment’ enabled by the previous holder of her portfolio (as GM Police & Crime Commissioner) being interim mayor Tony Lloyd – whose own multi-ethnic selection of 6 men and 14 women deputies had, even if temporarily, presented a strikingly un-stale-pale-male picture.

May 12th New WM Mayor, Andy Street, appears to acknowledge the WMCA’s socio-economic unrepresentativeness – an issue that “had been referenced many times on the campaign trail [and] would need to be addressed in the weeks and months ahead”.

Obviously not yet, though, as, rather than follow the Fawcett/Burnham route, he appoints fellow Conservative, Solihull Council leader, and former CA Chairman Bob Sleigh as his Deputy.

Subsequent appointments include the assignment of the Finance & Investments portfolio to Councillor Izzy Seccombe, Leader of Warwickshire County Council, the WMCA’s non-constituent authority, increasing women’s representation on the CA’s roughly 32-member governing body from 0 to 1.

I’ll repeat that, lest there be any misunderstanding. The WMCA Board comprises 1 Chairman (male), 1 Vice-Chairman (m), 13 Constituent Members (all m), 13 Non-constituent Members (12m, 1f), and 4 Observers (all m).

As noted in these columns, the Mayor was apparently “privately surprised” by his own election victory, and had no implementation plan ‘ready to go’. But inclusion, equality and diversity are part of everyday discussion and practice in today’s local government, and this Mayor’s apparent unawareness – or, worse, carelessness – of their importance and sensitivity seems at minimum a reflection of political naivety, in no way reduced by some commendable appointments of exceptional women as senior officers.

May 17th – Newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron, like his predecessor, François Hollande, appoints a gender-parity cabinet – following similar practices in Germany (2002), Spain (2004), Chile (2006), and most recently Canada (2015).

May 26thLiverpool City Region (LCR) Mayor, Steve Rotheram, announces his 7-member, all-male cabinet, plus three co-opted, non-voting members (also all male) – to considerable local protest.

Rotheram claims he “attempted to bring two women into his cabinet, but was blocked by other members”.  One – Merseyside Police & Crime Commissioner Jane Kennedy – has since become a non-voting co-optee, and the Mayor has also appointed 7 specialist Advisors, 6 of whom are women.

Liverpool City Council Mayor Joe Anderson has also nominated Councillor and former Merseyside Police Commissioner Ann O’Byrne to represent him on the LCR cabinet, making her the only woman with voting rights.

June 30th Greater Manchester CA’s constitution is amended to require appointed portfolio holders to nominate assistant leads of a different gender to ensure balanced representation in meetings and decision-making. Committees, panels and boards that advise the Mayor will also be gender-balanced wherever possible.

August 28th – The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), in a broadly similar analysis to the Fawcett Society’s above, proposes “radical reforms” designed specifically “to correct the absence of women at the top of Combined Authorities”.

These include that: (i) the two top positions on CA Boards – Mayor and Deputy – should be of different genders, with the requirement written into the CA’s constitution; (ii) CA boards should voluntarily sign up to a commitment that within 8 years no gender should be represented by less than 45% of members with full voting rights.

Sept. 10thLiverpool Women’s Leadership Group, in an open letter referring to Greater Manchester’s example, express themselves “appalled that the new LCR cabinet is made up entirely of men”.

They call on all cabinet members with voting rights “to demonstrate their commitment to redress the enduring gender imbalance by nominating a woman from your cabinet to take your place”.

In conclusion: I fully recognise that some, women undoubtedly included, will argue that women’s inclusion and representation by themselves say little about the prestige or power of the posts to which they’re actually appointed, and even less about the political status or equality of women in the political system.

And they’re absolutely right – though there is evidence that increasing the proportions of women in prominent cabinets, parliaments and assemblies does produce an increase in women’s participation and activism more generally.

My simpler point is that exclusion and non-representation DO say something – something rather important.

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