The reality of being a politician- what’s stopping diversity

Jess Blair outlines a new report, which has identified abuse and work life balance as the major barriers to diversity.

How many times have you watched some kind of political debate and seen a majority of white, middle aged men taking part? Whether it’s PMQs, Question Time or a live stream of a local council meeting, the odds (and data) tell us that women are vastly outnumbered, the diversity of age groups are limited, and non-white faces are rare.


We know it’s a problem in Westminster. But we now know the scale of the problem in Wales too.


When politics fails to reflect the experiences of large parts of the public, our nation’s democratic health is at risk. But what’s behind it in Wales?


After months of interviews and analysis, ERS Cymru have revealed the worrying situation for diversity here – looking at both the stats and the stories surrounding the failure of politics to properly reflect voters.


We interviewed key figures in each of the Welsh parties, as well as surveying over 250 elected representatives in Wales. We were shocked by the findings.


When we asked politicians and citizens who have been put off from standing, we heard two main barriers to diversity.


Firstly, there were institutional barriers: the failure by parties to take these issues seriously, issues with the electoral system creating individual fiefdoms which can be held by undiverse representatives for decades, and the need for formal measures to be introduced to ensure we see progress.


But the second part is societal: the realities of being a politician, which would turn many off from standing.


A majority (54%) of female politicians surveyed in Wales say they have suffered harassment or abuse, as well as 40% of male politicians.


Last year we saw the Westminster sexual abuse scandal lead to investigations and suspensions, but so far little concrete change.


We are calling for enforceable, positive actions in the wake of our report’s findings.


What was surprising in this report was the visceral and genuinely unsettling accounts of abuse that politicians told us about. These ranged from an individual who reported being sent excrement through their letter box, and another who said they had opened a letter filled with razor blades.


Another politician told us: “I have been slapped on the bottom by one Member and another attempted to pull me under a tree and kiss me.”


A former political aide who has been put off standing for office also shared their experiences: “A rock (and then traffic cone) was thrown at our shop front office window, shattering the glass all over my colleague. I was stalked home by a constituent…On social media there were the usual rude comments about my bosses’ weight. My other boss who had a family had threats directed at his wife and children as well as himself.”


This level of abuse and harassment in politics means it’s little wonder that experiencing this might seem unappealing for many people who could potentially come forward to stand for election.


On top of this, the life of a politician is not easy. Far from the view of elitist politicians with their own drivers and multiple houses funded by the taxpayer, for the majority of politicians their life revolves around juggling childcare or care of other relatives with travelling large distances on a weekly basis – an issue which leave them away from home most of the time.


For – often women – with young children, or those with disabilities, long-distance travel can be difficult. Particularly in the period before one has been selected as a candidate, when no funding is available.


And there is the cost. As one politician points out: “Before you actually get elected you are a candidate for some considerable time, and in today’s politics especially at an Assembly level and Westminster level the public at large expect you to almost be a full time candidate.” That often means giving up paid work – a huge skew in favour of the already over-represented.


The stark truth is that politics sees a majority of white, middle aged men in elected positions because it suits that demographic: politics has been made to fit around a lifestyle where people don’t necessarily have all the worries of the average person in Wales or across the UK.

It’s time for that to change – and the only way that’s going to happen is by taking direct action.


We’ve developed 16 recommendations– to government, political parties, social media companies and more – to try and remove some of the barriers to standing to be a politician.


These include introducing gender quotas for elections to set a standard for equality, a recommendation for parties to each develop a diversity action plan, and cracking down on abuse.


The revelations in this report show there is a crisis in diversity which require urgent action.


Diversity is a fundamental part of a healthy democracy. We’ve outlined the obstacles – and the solutions. Now it’s time to put it right.


Read ERS Cymru’s new report ‘New Voices: How Welsh Politics Can Begin to Reflect Wales’


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

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