Thursday 5 May is a ‘Super Thursday’ for all kinds of non-Westminster elections, with candidates running for office for London Assembly and Mayor, many local authorities, the Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies. Polling also takes place for 40 of the 41 Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) in England and Wales – but as Francesca Gains points out, the lack of women standing for these roles is a cause for concern.
And so comes the first real test of public preferences for PCCs. Poor turnout for the first elections in 2012 reflected both a November polling date and ambivalence by all parties for the idea of introducing directly elected officials to oversee policing. Turnout this time is likely to be better, with fewer independents gaining office, as the parties take a more committed approach to PCC campaigning.
But one thing is unlikely to change; the very poor representation of women candidates and therefore successfully elected women Commissioners.
Much attention is paid to gender representation in Westminster, other national parliaments and in Government. And whilst there are hopeful signs of more gender equality in who stands and wins election elsewhere, we are unlikely to see much change in the very low number of women seeking and winning office as PCCs.
In 2012 just 35 women stood; 21 Labour, 11 Conservative and 14 Independent and only six of the 41 PCCs elected in November 2012 were women – two Labour, two Conservative and two Independents – just 14.6%.
This time only 28 women are standing in the 40 PCC areas with elections: six Labour; five Conservative; eight Liberal Democrat; three Independent; 3 UKIP; two English Democrat; and one Plaid Cymru. In 20 of the 40 PCC elections being contested there are no women standing.
Although the PCC supplementary vote system is difficult to predict, five of the six incumbent female PCCS from 2012 look likely to secure re-election. Jane Kennedy in Merseyside and Vera Baird in Northumbria (Labour); Julia Mulligan in North Yorkshire and Katy Bourne in Sussex (Conservative); and Independent Sue Mount Stevens in Avon and Somerset should all remain in post.
Ann Barnes the independent PCC in Kent is not standing again after a fairly controversial term of office. And as no women are standing in Kent this time round, a fall in the number of female PCCs after Thursday’s election is possible.
Some gains to be made?
However, there are some potential gains elsewhere despite the very small number of female candidates. In Devon and Cornwall the incumbent male Conservative PCC is not standing again and Alison Hernandez the female Conservative candidate, if elected, could increase the overall number of female PCCs.
Elsewhere Surrey looks interesting where Camille Juliffe, an Independent candidate, is standing and the previous male Independent PCC is not standing again.
Likewise in Warwickshire the previous male independent PCC is not standing again and this might provide the best chance for Labour’s Julie Anne Jackson to increase the Labour Party’s representation with a Labour gain.
Despite the Liberal Democrats selecting eight women candidates this time, they are standing in seats where they are unlikely to be elected. So if there are gains in the three seats above it is possible that the overall number of female PCCs could rise to 8 – or just 20%. This is far behind the 29% elected to the UK Parliament in 2015. So why is female PCC representation lagging behind representation elsewhere??
Supply and demand
Research examining the work of the first cohort of PCCs suggests some possible explanations.
Firstly, on the supply side the role of a directly elected PCC involves incredibly lengthy hours with public meetings and attendance at evening meetings and events essential. PCCs like other directly elected politicians have made good use of social media to reach out to their electorates. But as is the case elsewhere, social media can be a toxic and very sexist environment. For aspiring female politicians especially with caring responsibilities both these factors may prove very off-putting. A more recognisable career pathway either in local government or as an MP may be both more familiar and possibly more attractive in terms of having a supportive peer group and recognised role models to aspire to.
On the demand side, what is most apparent is the collapse in the number of female candidates standing for the Labour Party. In other elections at local level or for Westminster the Labour Party has led the way in ensuring that candidates for vacant and target seats are selected in ways which support increasing gender representation. But these rules have not been applied to selecting candidates for PCC elections. Without the Labour Party ‘upping the ante’ in terms of selecting female candidates, there is less reason for the other parties to follow suit. And this does matter.
And as was argued at the 2010 Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation, improving diversity in political representation matters for reasons of justice, legitimacy and efficiency. A better diversity of political representatives increases the likelihood of a wider pool of experiences when considering policy priorities. Research examining the policy priorities of the 2012 cohort of PCCs shows that female Commissioners are 1.7 times as likely as their male counterparts to make violence against women and girls a policy priority.
What the PCC elections are likely to show is that without deliberate intervention by political parties, male dominance in supply and demand of candidates will continue – and the increase in female representation in this relatively new and important political institution will continue to be painfully slow.