The popular impression that very few people bother to vote in local elections is closely linked with another which contends that many seats are uncontested and that those which are attract few candidates. Our purpose in the first section of this chapter, therefore, will be to compare this conventional wisdom with reality. As with the data on electoral turnout, the truth is more complex than is commonly realised, but certainly on this issue the health of local democracy should not give undue cause for concern. Indeed, we may go further and argue there are positive signs of increasing competition. Such improvement in levels of contestation has done little, however, to reduce concerns about the ‘calibre’ of those individuals putting themselves forward for election. This has been a traditional complaint, encountered throughout the nineteenth century. Arguably, it is based on snobbishness rather than on empirical evidence (Dearlove, 1979: ch. 4). We have no new data available to us here on the occupation, age, educational background or attitudes of individual candidates and councillors, but in one sense we can examine the extent to which councillors remain, in Stanyer’s memorable phrase, a ‘male, bourgeois gerontocracy’ (Stanyer 1976:109).
In the second section we examine the changing representation of women in local government. The decision by the Labour party in 1993 to introduce all-women short lists for the selection of prospective parliamentary candidates in certain marginal seats was intended to address the problem whereby fewer than 10 per cent of MPs elected in 1992 were women. Though few disagreed with that objective, controversy surrounded the means and Labour had to abandon the policy following a judgment in 1996 that it was illegal. As we shall show, women have been more successful in winning a presence in local government and currently about a quarter of councillors are female.
A third section briefly presents some new data on the ethnic background of councillors. In the final part of the chapter the value to a candidate of political incumbency will be explored in some detail. Can some councillors count on a ‘personal vote’, can it be measured, and is it sufficient to provide a buttress against a more general swing away from their party?