London might be one of the world’s most multicultural, multi-ethnic cities but recent research shows that BME people, especially BME women, are seriously underrepresented in the capital’s local politics. The proportion of black and Asian councillors has risen over the past two or three decades so that in 2018 it stood at about 26 per cent compared to a Black and Asian population of about 32 per cent.
But while, broadly speaking, the proportion of Asian councillors is now roughly equivalent to the proportion of London’s population that is Asian, black Londoners are still underrepresented.
When Queen Mary University of London’s Mile End Institute polled Londoners, over a third of them said they would like to see that change. Nearly four in ten (37 per cent) say they’d like to see more councillors from an ethnic minority background and only one in 20 (5 per cent) said they’d like to see fewer. Perhaps not surprisingly, however, improving ethnic representation is more of a priority for BME Londoners, 50 per cent of whom would like to see the proportion rise compared with 29 per cent of white Londoners.
There’s also a whacking great age gap when it comes to this issue. Some 56 per cent of Londoners aged 18-24 would like to see more ethnic minority representation in London’s councils. But when you ask Londoners over 65 years old, the figure plummets to just 16 per cent.
There are big (and not unrelated) differences between London’s Tory and Labour voters, too, and between Leavers and Remainers. Just 18 per cent of Conservative voters say they’d like to see more ethnic minority councillors – a figure that rises hugely to 53 per cent among the capital’s Labour supporters. There’s a similar split between London’s Leavers and Remainers (18 per cent against 49 per cent and, again, not unrelated).
To some, this will look like another battle, or at least a skirmish, in the “culture wars” that some people like to bang on about these days. And you can see why, at least in the sense that a similar pattern is repeated when Londoners are asked about Muslim councillors.
True, the most common, and most encouraging, answer given by both Remainers and Leavers is that it doesn’t matter whether councillors are from this group or not (41 per cent and 37 per cent respectively).
But it’s nonetheless striking that a quarter (24 per cent) of London’s Leavers and exactly the same proportion of its Tory voters say they’d actually like to see fewer Muslim councillors in the capital’s local government, compared with just 4 per cent of Remainers (and 6 per cent of Labour voters) who say the same.
Conversely 28 per cent of London’s Remainers (and 34 per cent of its Labour voters) say they’d like to see more Muslims serving on the capital’s councils – a feeling shared by just 10 per cent of London’s Leavers and 8 per cent of its Conservative voters.
Tellingly perhaps, similar differences are evident between, on the one hand, Leavers and Tory voters and, on the other, Remainers and Labour voters when it comes to councillors from the LGBT community. There’s also a difference on gender, with Remainers and Labour voters nearly twice as likely to say there should be more women on London’s local authorities.
In the end, though, perhaps the most important thing to emerge from our polling is something that also comes out when you ask voters about their MPs. When it comes to councillors, what matters far more to Londoners than ethnicity, religion and sexuality is whether they’re local. Six out of ten of the capital’s voters would like to see more councillors come from the area they represent.
And although it seems to be an even bigger priority for Labour (and Lib Dem) supporters than for Conservatives – something that’s even more true, incidentally, when it comes to getting more working-class people elected – the idea that councillors should come from the area they represent is not only widespread but transcends any of the familiar demographic differences. It’s even something that (whisper it softly!) Remainers and Leavers can actually agree on.