In March this year I answered a call for written evidence from the Communities and Local Government Committee with regard to their inquiry into the role councillors play in their communities.
During the last National Census of Local Authority Councillors, it was revealed that the average age of councillors had increased from 55 years old in 1997 to 60 years old in 2010.
When submitting my evidence to the Committee I focused on this point and the implications for representation and local democracy arising from this lack of diversity in the age of councillors recruited. In addition to this I shared an anecdote from my experience of running for local government in which an existing councillor in her sixties spoke of her annoyance to a group of young candidates that we had been told that we could become councillors whilst still in full-time employment.
As a result of this I was asked last month to go down to Westminster and talk to the Communities and Local Government Committee about why people chose, or chose not, to stand in local elections.
Here I spoke of the importance of a council being reflective of the community it is serving. With regard to young people I feel this is important as I do not feel that older people are fully aware of the problems facing many of us today. People in their fifties and sixties experienced a stable career, free education, no student debt and a home that has increased in value. Today, only people born into money experience that quality of life and for people like us, things are going to be tougher than they were for our parents.
What do the older generations know of the experience of surviving at university when it has never been more expensive? What do they know of looking to get on the career ladder during a recession, working an unpaid internship and having to move back home and rely on parental income?
Perhaps an advantage young people have today is modern technology and the internet? However, older people do not understand how this technology causes younger people to work harder and for longer than their parents as they are able to take work home.
In addition to this, the cost of property has increased at a rate far higher than our wages. I also do not think older people understand that the deposit needed for a first-time buyer is 59 per cent higher than it was only a decade ago. Young people currently have to pay private landlord’s rents that are higher than the mortgage payments for the houses/flats they live in. What experience does someone in their sixties have of trying to save for a deposit on a house whilst paying private rents that are higher than the mortgage they are saving for?
People in their sixties were married with children by their twenties. Today families hold out on having children early on in hopes that further down the road they will be better able to financially support them. In addition to this, I do not think older people understand that the uncertain futures of young people have consequences on modern relationships, as couples do not have a stable environment in which to put down their own roots.
I also shared my opinion with regard to what I think puts younger people off from standing for election and what could be done to encourage more younger people to stand.
I personally feel that the problem starts at school. Not voting until eighteen and poor levels of citizenship education, leads to a lack of understanding regarding the work of local and national political systems and how to become politically active. This causes younger people not to seek to engage with councils with local civil society.
In my local authority the city council current has more councillors aged over 75 years old than under 35 years old. This eliminates much of the interest of younger people in local politics as they lack role models to follow. Younger people that are engaged, may feel that local government candidacy is not for people like them; they are for the retired. However, for most younger people, I think that this completely disenfranchises them.
I definitely do not think older councillors are against local government and when asked whether there should be more young people on the council, they would certainly say yes. The problem is they do not see themselves as part of the problem. Whenever criticised, I hear older councillors advertising their length of service as a badge of honour or qualification. This attitude creates a problem almost akin to bed-blocking in the NHS, in which elderly councillors fill seats and produce a barrier that young candidates struggle to get around.
The attitude that decades of membership is a badge of honour and a qualification for office is also a problem for young people at selection meetings. If a meeting of elderly party members gives greater weight to forty years of passive membership than five years of political activism and organisation, then younger people will always be at a disadvantage.
I believe there should be some form of ‘positive discrimination’ to ensure more younger candidates are elected. This could take the form of introducing a limit on the number of consecutive terms, or total years that could be served as a councillor. I feel this would free seats that could then be filled using under-35 short lists.
I recently raised this policy idea at the Rebuilding Our Communities policy seminar at the Labour Party Conference. Unsurprisingly, younger party members were very supportive, while older members were less enthusiastic.
People in our country that are under sixty years old have a huge amount of talent and make up the vast majority of our nation’s workforce. I think that local government being largely made up of older people wastes this talent and makes our elected officials unrepresentative. Most upsettingly, I feel this causes young people to find local government remote and as a result undermines the future of our democracy.
Scott Nicholson is Treaurer of Leeds Fabian Society and a Young Fabians Member.